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Opinion: Education Reform – School choice would benefit all Montanans

by Joe Balyeat
Helena Independent Record
January 29, 2013

“There is no respect in which inhabitants of a low-income neighborhood are so disadvantaged as in the kind of schooling they can get for their children.” Economist Milton Friedman

Given the fact that Montana continuously ranks near dead last in the country in average wages and our “low-income neighborhoods” arguably encompass our whole state, it should not go un-noticed that Montana also ranks dead last nationally in educational choice reforms as well. The Center for Education Reform ranks Montana 51st (even behind Washington D.C.) in its Parent Power Index. And Friedman’s economic analysis is spot on: There may be a direct connection between Montana’s failure to provide educational freedom to our impoverished families and the continued multi-generational stagnation of economic opportunity in Montana.

Of course it is the entrenched special interests such as government union bosses and bureaucrats who block any and all attempts at true reform, insisting that the only answer is to throw more money at a system that al-ready spends $11,530 per student statewide. This means the average Montana worker’s entire annual salary is devoured educating just 3 kids for nine months. This tired “increase spending” non-solution is repeated despite the fact that there are at least 138 studies nationwide which prove that level of funding bears no statistical corre-lation to quality of education.

To the contrary, numerous studies reveal real education reform which does work – and the key ingredient is true educational choice. Even think tanks like the Brookings Institution concur that both public and private schools do a better job educating kids in “market” environments where there is true competition on a level play-ing field, as opposed to monopoly areas (such as Montana) where public schools have no real competition.

Even Democrat researchers John Chubb and Terry Moe concluded: “Conventional education reforms have been generally unsuccessful in halting the decline in [school] performance and have little potential for doing so… The key to better schools is …greater school autonomy… competition and parental choice. …Although the goal of educational choice is to give our children a better education, it would also eliminate stultifying and expensive educational bureaucracies and may yield significant savings.”

Montana has the OPI bureaucracy, the MSBA bureaucracy, Board of Education bureaucracy, MEA bureauc-racy, MHSA bureaucracy, MASA bureaucracy, MQEC bureaucracy, local superintendents bureaucracy, and county superintendents bureaucracy – each with their own fleet of lobbyists to intimidate and indoctrinate your legislators; all paid directly or indirectly at taxpayer expense, all claiming that increased spending is necessary “for the sake of the children,” despite scores of studies proving otherwise.

If the last third of a century of world history taught us anything, it taught that government-run monopolies don’t work. Free market competition produces a better product at lower cost. Yet, when it comes to education, strangely Montana remains in the dark ages of government-run monopoly with no form of publicly-funded educational choice whatsoever. Because legislators and governors alike fear the political power of these en-trenched educratic special interests, past legislatures refused to give Montana parents the consumer power needed to dent Montana’s monolithic, monopolistic, non-responsive, inefficient education bureaucracy. So Montana is left in the dust of educational reform as the only western jurisdiction in the U.S. or Canada with no school choice of any kind. (Longstanding successful Alberta and British Columbia school choice plans both dis-prove the old canard that school choice can’t work in low-population rural states).

This is National School Choice Week. To counteract the stagnating weight of these entrenched special-interests, Montana parents and taxpayers need to rise up. Contact your legislators. Urge them to support true education reform bills like SB81 (Scholarship Tax Credit) and HB213 (Tuition Tax Credit), which will enable low and moderate income Montana families to have the same freedom as the rich to choose education options for their children. Not only will this give parents and kids more choices to find the educational setting which is best for them; it will also improve public school effectiveness and efficiency… because Milton Friedman was right – free market competition always leads to better service at better cost.

Former State Senator Joe Balyeat now serves as State Director of Americans for Prosperity – Montana. He is a Na-tional Merit Scholar UM graduate, (in 2 ½ years, straight A’s)… entirely a product of Montana’s public and private schools.