Montana Viewpoint

January 24, 2005

Everybody knows that the school funding issue is a big deal, but I bet the reason why is still a mystery to most people. Don’t feel alone, school funding is the most complex issue that the legislature faces, and it’s not easy to explain to a legislator, let alone a regular citizen.

In essence, the Montana Supreme Court has ruled that the way schools are funded in Montana doesn’t have anything to do with educating kids. The “funding formula” was devised in 1993 by the Legislative Auditor’s Office and is based on how much it costs to run schools, ignoring the purpose that the school is supposed to perform. It’s like deciding the cost of a system that puts a certain number of kids in a certain number of classrooms with a certain number of adults for a certain number of hours. What they do while they’re there doesn’t matter.

Coupled with that fact, the Legislature has given schools a decreasing amount of money (inflation adjusted) so that the state, now dedicates less money for education than it did in 1994. You will hear that we are spending more on education now than in 1994, but that needs to be put into perspective. Of the three sources of funding for schools—state, federal, and local—only the federal and local shares have increased.

Local money comes from local mill levies, some are voted on by the public, and some are allowed without a vote. Whenever the Legislature passes a tax cut and lowers the amount of revenue that schools get, schools are allowed to increase local levies to make up for the loss.

The Montana Constitution calls for “free quality public elementary and secondary schools,” but never defines the word “quality.” The Court has ordered the Legislature to define a quality system of education, decide how much it will cost to fund it, and find the money to do it. Essentially, the legislature could define a quality education anyway it wanted to as long as they fund what they decide.

I liken it to setting a speed limit; it may be too low, too high, or just right, but it will be the standard, and we have to obey it or get fined. Just so, the legislature could define a quality system of education as one where students are given a poor education so that the cost is kept low, and that would meet the court’s challenge.

Several years ago some members of the Legislature wanted to get rid of the pesky word “quality” in the Constitution. Red Menahan, a rotund and florid-faced legislator from Anaconda, rose from his seat to shout, “Removing the word ‘quality’ from the Constitution is like removing the word ‘not’ from the Ten Commandments!” It’s a point well taken.

The Senate has now passed a bill that defines a quality system of education and outlines the requirements needed to provide it. Now we will turn to the job of deciding what it will cost. This scares some people because they think the cost will be astronomical and taxes will go through the roof. That’s silly, because the political reality is that neither Democrats nor Republicans want to be tagged with a tax increase, and the Governor has ruled new taxes off limits.

What we are doing as a state, through our elected representatives, is deciding what kind of preparation we want Montana’s children to have for the never-easy job of adult life. No parent wants their child to face want and hardship as an adult. A quality education is a means of providing an opportunity for economic and intellectual success for our kids, and they deserve it.

Besides, how can they take care of us when we get old if they’re broke?

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620