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School Choice Already a Reality in Montana, Groups Say

The Montana Legislature is looking at a bill that would give parents vouchers for sending their children to private schools or for homeschooling. (Drew Tarvin/Flickr)
The Montana Legislature is looking at a bill that would give parents vouchers for sending their children to private schools or for homeschooling. (Drew Tarvin/Flickr)
February 27, 2017

HELENA, Mont. – There's a push for "school choice" in Montana, but some educators and Montanans are questioning what that phrase really means.

The Montana Public Education Center (MT-PEC) is a coalition of groups that says the term "choice" has been co-opted, and that this push is really a way to use public funds to send kids to private schools, with little public oversight.

Erica Schnee, assistant principal at Bozeman High School, says students have many choices at public schools.

"For example, we have a biomedical sciences program that allows students to tackle real-world issues, and they prepare themselves for jobs and careers in the medical field," Schnee said. "And even if they choose to pursue a different field after high school, the skills that they learn are really applicable for any career."

MT-PEC is made up of the Montana School Boards Association, the Montana Rural Education Association, the teachers' union MEA-MFT and others.

Dennis Parman, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Coalition, says the array of choices for students doesn't stop at advance placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual-credit opportunities with local universities. He also points to the virtual course provider Montana Digital Academy, available for kids across the state.

"It has well over 50 different opportunities, including six foreign languages, oceanography, all the core classes you would expect, and then a wide variety of advanced placement courses," Parman explained.

MEA-MFT president Eric Feaver is especially concerned about House Bill 423, which received a hearing in the House Education Committee earlier this month. It would create pay vouchers for special-needs kids, military dependents and all their siblings.

Feaver says the vouchers could then be used to send students to any school, anywhere in the world.

"Whatever school that would be would be outside the purview of the state of Montana, the board of public education, the local board of trustees," said Feaver. "so, there would be no particular regulatory environment there for what that choice might be and so, we think that is a misappropriation of moneys."

About 100 people gathered at the Capitol last month to support school choice, saying private schools, charter schools or homeschooling work better for some students. But supporters of public schools say these alternatives lack public accountability and that diverting money would be detrimental to public schools.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT