Archives for category: Montana

The charter industry has set its sights on Montana. This is an odd decision, since the state has no big cities and is almost 90% white. The African American population is less than 1%. The biggest city is Billings, with about 110,000 residents; the second largest is Missoula, which has about 75,000 residents. Montana ranks above the national averages on NAEP.

Montana has two existing charter schools, but the industry wants to make it easier to grow.

Alex Sakariassan of the Montana Free Press reported:

The Montana Legislature once more took up the issue of school choice during a lengthy hearing on a bill that would open the door to public charter schools in Montana.

Speaking before the House Education Committee Wednesday, Rep. Ed Hill, R-Havre, informed fellow lawmakers that Montana is one of only five states in the nation that has not yet embraced charter schools, which are funded by taxpayers but operate independently of the public school system. Hill said he hopes to change that with House Bill 633. The measure would authorize the establishment of such schools in Montana, grant them autonomy over their finances, their curriculum and their staff, and create a new commission and approval framework to oversee those schools.

“This public charter school bill will provide an option for innovation outside our current traditional public school,” Hill said. 

Hill and other speakers noted that legislation similar to HB 633 has been introduced numerous times in the past, specifically during the 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017 sessions. None of those efforts cleared the Legislature.

“Montanans like choice, and we’re told we have choice in everything we do except when it comes to publicly educating our kids. Somehow when it comes to public education, we’re told, ‘No, that square peg is going to fit in that round hole or we’re going to make it.’”


Throughout the more than two-hour discussion, supporters framed charter schools as giving Montana parents and students more choices in K-12 education

Public school supporters opposed the bill.

Opponents countered that HB 633 would stretch education funding in Montana and build a parallel and duplicative school system to the one currently overseen by the Board of Public Education. Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, said that would equate to “growing government.” The issue was also addressed in a legal review note compiled by the Legislative Services Division, which said HB 633 could raise constitutional questions related to the BPE’s authority over public schools. Curtis also highlighted concerns about how the bill would ensure adequate oversight of newly established charter schools...

Curtis’ opposition was echoed by several other major public education associations, including the Montana School Boards Association and the School Administrators of Montana. BPE Executive Director McCall Flynn testified that charter schools established under HB 633 would be exempt from the licensing and accreditation standards required of public schools. Flynn added that an administrative rule adopted by the board in 2012 already allows for the formation of charter schools, citing the presence of the Bridger Charter Academy in Bozeman.

“This bill is unnecessary,” Flynn said. “The Board of Public Education already has a process in place to establish public charter schools.”

As the discussion turned to members of the committee, several lawmakers tried to gain a better grasp of the scope of HB 633’s impacts. MTSBA Executive Director Lance Melton fielded numerous questions about the financial implications a charter school system would carry. He noted that, as written, the bill would grant a separate basic entitlement to new charter schools, meaning those schools would draw money directly from Montana’s education budget. Depending on the number and size of such schools that crop up, Melton said, the added funding obligation to the state could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Keila Szpaller wrote in the Daily Montanan about the legislative debate.

Its leading opponent is Rep. Wendy McKamey, a Republican legislator, who insisted that families have plenty of choices already.

Opponents…said the bill is riddled with shortcomings and saddles taxpayers with higher costs.

For example, it could add $321,000 in public cost for each new high school in the state, according to the Montana School Boards Association. At the same time, it would take away a requirement that schools teach students with special needs or pay employees prevailing wages, according to the Montana Federation of Public Employees. And it would remove minimum teacher licensing standards, according to the Montana Board of Public Education.

“It’s my understanding that we wouldn’t want anyone off the street coming into our homes to do plumbing,” said McCall Flynn, executive director of the Board of Public Education. “Nor should we expect someone without any kind of educator preparation to teach our children in our public schools, even if that is a public charter school…”

Several representatives from Montana’s education associations argued against the bill, but they weren’t the only opponents. Kim Mangold, with the Montana Farmers Union, said students who attend rural schools in Montana are a vulnerable population.

Rural schools are critical to the largest farming and ranch organization in the state, Mangold said: “These schools are the lifeblood of rural Montana.”

“This act has the potential to remove resources from public schools, especially rural public schools, that are important to farm and ranching today,” Mangold said.

Lance Melton, with the Montana School Boards Association, explained the potential costs to both state coffers and local property taxpayers given the “technically flawed way” the bill was written. In short, he said it would require an elementary charter school with even just one pupil to receive $53,000, or a high school with just one student to receive $321,000.

If every Class I and II district in the state was converted into a series of public charter schools of 200 students each, the bill would end up costing the state of Montana $350 million — an estimated 25 percent on top of the money already going to fund all K12 public education, he said.

“You’d have a nice little gift-wrapped surprise when you arrived in the next legislative session if and when this was to occur,” Melton said of the extra costs.

A very bad bill for Montana that could blow a hole in the state budget and break up communities while enriching charter operators and corporate charter chains. If Montanans are conservative, they will reject this bill.

Thanks to reader “Montana Teacher” for sending these links.

This interesting comment was posted on the blog a few days ago by a reader who identify as “Montana Teacher.”

To my dear online friends whom I have never met, the faithful readers of Diane Ravitch’s blog. Like you, I felt sick all last night and much of today. I am hoping Biden will win, of course. But I am sickened that even ONE person would vote for Trump, after all that he has done.

What I am writing about to you today is this: I am sitting in the middle of a bunch of RED STATES right now. In fact, Montana went completely red after years of a Democratic governorship and other Democratic officials. It is a sad, sad day for us. Our beautiful public lands will be desecrated and potentially sold off. We don’t have charter schools yet, but we will. A sad, sad day.

But here is the deal: Not all Republicans are racist. And by calling them that, we stop all conversation with them. To understand why they vote the way they do, we must listen. To win in the elections, as Democrats, we must understand our opponents who, actually, are our neighbors.

Many Republicans certainly are racist. But if you analyze the U.S. voting map, the main difference between blue and red states is the URBAN/ RURAL difference. So when people say Republicans are racist, they are indirectly saying that RURAL people are racist. That is a generalization.

We need to understand why there is such a major difference between urban and rural voters. Here are my theories:

Have you ever visited Jordan, Montana? It’s in the middle of nowhere. It feels like you’re on a different planet. It’s just sky and grass and cows. To live there, you have to be fiercely independent, and you need a gun, for food (hunting) and for protection (you might be the only one around for miles). There are no black people, there are no Latinos, there are no people from India or Korea or China, but there are Native Americans on the adjacent reservation.

You go to church on Sunday. Your kids are in 4-H. You say the Pledge of Allegiance. You have traditional values. This doesn’t mean you are racist. These people rely on themselves and on each other, and they don’t like to be told what to do, like “don’t shoot prairie dogs in order to save black-footed ferrets.” I don’t agree with that; it’s just we need to understand them more.

Many rural people feel THREATENED that their way of life is being taken away from them. They like their traditional values. Now, in my opinion, Trump does not support those values (church, family, community, agriculture, independence, freedom). But somehow, he has convinced them that he supports them. He has reached out to them in ways that the Democratic Party has not.

These folks LOVE their post offices! They love their local, public schools with locally elected school boards! They love their community hospitals and nursing homes! They want their Medicare and Social Security. They want their agriculture trade deals with foreign countries. Democrats need to show them who actually supports them. But, of course, guns, flags, and abortion get in the way. And they are worried about their towns drying up and blowing away, so the economy is a big deal for them.

Anyway, my point is this. We need to listen, observe, understand, think about, analyze, and reach out to these citizens if we’re ever going to win over the rural states of America. I think this is possible. For example, climate change will ruin their livelihoods. How can we help them understand this?

I’m writing a lot today because I’m desperate to figure out how we save Montana and other rural states and the country. But think about it–cowboys in Texas, Mormons in Utah and Idaho, pioneer stock in North and South Dakota, farmers in Iowa, etc. Somehow, these people think that Trump represents their values more than Biden. I don’t think that’s true. But how do we talk to them?

Picture of the cemetery near Jordan, Montana:

States like Montana have a strong tradition of rugged individualism. That tradition is now in conflict with the need for public health measures. This story in the Los Angeles Times is a fascinating read. A doctor in small-town Montana is a leader of the anti-masking rebellion. So far, she’s winning.

WHITEFISH, MONT. — When Steve Qunell won a seat on the City Council last year in this town of 8,000, he figured he’d be dealing with potholes and affordable housing.

Instead, he finds himself at the center of a raging debate over how to fight the coronavirus, which is surging in Montana like never before.

The state’s governor, Steve Bullock, a Democrat who is in the final stretch of a tight U.S. Senate race and has been reluctant to impose restrictions that could hurt his campaign, called on the hardest-hit counties to consider shutting bars and enforcing a statewide mask mandate.

There was little appetite for that in conservative Flathead County, where the health board has been dominated by an outspoken doctor who argues that the pandemic is a hoax.

That left the Whitefish City Council.

“We are the last line of defense,” Qunell, a 49-year-old high school social studies teacher, told his fellow council members during an online public meeting this week. “Are we going to lead? Or are we just going to follow the nonbelievers in the county?”

Places like Whitefish once could afford to view the pandemic as a distant big-city problem. Through mid-September, sparsely populated Montana had a death toll of 140.

But that figure has doubled over the last five weeks as a new wave of infections sweeps the country. More than 85,000 cases were reported nationwide Friday, the most in a single day since the pandemic began. 

The worst outbreaks are in the rural Midwest and Rocky Mountains. With 4,693 new cases over the last week, Montana had the country’s third-highest infection rate, trailing only the Dakotas.

The rise in Montana has overwhelmed efforts to conduct contact tracing and strained health systems across the state.

And as events in Whitefish show, efforts to stem exponential increases are pushing up against a culture that prides itself on rugged independence and freedom from government rules.

Early in the pandemic, Whitefish, a gateway to ski areas and Glacier National Park, moved more decisively than many other communities to contain the virus. 

Last spring, the City Council ordered hotels and short-term rental properties to take in only essential workers — a requirement that remained in place until the end of May.

Whitefish was also one of the first cities in Montana to make people wear masks — though the governor soon issued a mandate statewide.

Still, from the beginning, there was strong local opposition to such restrictions. 

Leading the resistance was Dr. Annie Bukacek, a 62-year-old internist known for her far-right views and opposition to vaccination.

Flathead County commissioners appointed her to the county health board last December after dismissing two other doctors with more public health experience — changes the commissioners said were meant to increase the diversity of views.

Bukacek became a hero of anti-lockdown activists across the country last spring after she delivered a speech to a local church congregation alleging that the federal government was exaggerating the coronavirus death toll.

“People are being terrorized by fearmongers into relinquishing cherished freedoms,” she told members of the Liberty Fellowship. 

She wore a lab coat and stethoscope for her presentation, which has been viewed more than 860,000 times on YouTube.

The congregation is led by Chuck Baldwin, who is described by the Montana Human Rights Network as “the unofficial reverend of the militia movement.” He has defied state orders by continuing to hold in-person services. 

Bukacek and a small group of allies protest outside schools and government buildings a few times each week to demand an end to mask requirements and other state restrictions they equate to martial law.

Their message struck some as plausible last summer as cases and deaths remained low, even as more tourists than expected visited Whitefish and the national park.

Eventually though it became clear that Flathead County, population 100,000, would not avoid the kind of suffering that so many other parts of the country had experienced. 

The first major outbreak in Whitefish struck a nursing home in August, infecting 43 of the 52 patients — and ultimately killing 13 of them. 

The county’s biggest hospital, the Kalispell Regional Medical Center, soon started seeing more admissions to its coronavirus ward. 

Erica Lengacher, a 46-year-old critical-care nurse who works nights in the ward, could cope with the stress of watching patients dying. That was part of the job.

Harder to deal with was the indifference that opponents of basic safety measures seemed to have for victims of the pandemic. 

“I just felt deep, deep sadness that while I saw patients suffer and die, there was a sense that our community had moved on and didn’t really care,” she said.

“I realize that there’s a historic tension between public health and individual liberties,” she said. “But a good portion of our community is flouting the state mask mandate, and I still can’t get my head around how this has become so politicized and divisive.”

The number of patients on the coronavirus ward has hovered around 29 in recent days, but managers are recruiting more nurses in case things get worse.

Recent outbreaks in Flathead County — where the total number of people known to have been infected doubled to more than 2,800 over the last three weeks — have been traced to large gatherings at four churches, four weddings, three political events and two trade shows.

This week the county health department advised residents to stay at home as much as possible and limit contacts outside their families to no more than six people a week, each for 15 minutes or less. The recommendations have been widely disregarded.

Tamalee St. James Robinson, the interim county health officer, said in an interview that she has the authority to make such measures mandatory but that more rules would be useless because officials were refusing to enforce those already in place.

The county prosecutor, Travis Ahner, said he was focused on crime and didn’t see a point in cracking down on businesses for mask violations.

For their part, the county commissioners released a statement this month supporting “the Constitutional rights of Montanans to make choices about personal protections for themselves.”

“Where does that leave me, just me out there?” Robinson asked.

As for the county health board, Bukacek prevailed in the latest battle over whether to limit social gatherings.

“Statistically, for practical purposes, COVID in Montana has 100% survival,” she said last week during an online public meeting of the board.

“No, it doesn’t!” shouted Dr. Jeffrey Tjaden, a local infectious disease specialist who attended to warn that without immediate action things were likely to get much worse.

A minute later, he interrupted her again to say that he was so fed up with her presentation that he was logging off.

“I’m not saying that the people who died didn’t matter,” she said after he was gone.

At the end of the night, the board members were left with a single proposal: no gatherings of more than 500 people.

They rejected it with a 5-to-3 vote.

That prompted criticism from the governor, who said he was disappointed that the board ignored experts and that “some are trying to politicize this virus” over protecting health and safety. 

“The message was presented loud and clear that if the virus spread is not controlled in the Flathead area, schools will have to close, parents will be out of the workforce, businesses will be hurt and the hospital will run out of bed capacity,” Bullock told reporters.

This week, he announced that state investigators had conducted spot checks on more than a dozen businesses in Flathead County and that authorities will ask a judge to temporarily shut down five establishments deemed “egregious violators” for flouting mask requirements and social distancing standards.

The biggest looming threat may be winter, because the virus spreads most easily when people are indoors.

In Whitefish, temperatures plunged Friday as the season’s first major snowstorm hit.

“It’s time for action, and it has unfortunately fallen to us,” Qunell told his colleagues at this week’s City Council meeting.

The city manager suggested writing a letter to the health board encouraging it to act. A councilman said another letter to businesses might persuade them to cooperate. 

Qunell didn’t see the point.

“The county’s not going to do anything no matter what letters we write,” he said.

He wanted the council to vote to close bars by 10 p.m. — before they usually get crowded and rowdy — and limit restaurants to 25% of capacity. 

But the only thing the council decided was to meet again Monday to consider imposing limits during Halloween weekend, when Whitefish traditionally puts on a popular downtown bar crawl. 

In an interview, Qunell said Whitefish must find a balance between protecting citizens and the economy that has eluded national, state and county leaders. 

“There’s been a failure of leadership from the very highest levels,” he said. “The responsibility keeps getting pushed downhill, and it’s ended up in our laps.”

The Network for Public Education Action is proud to endorse Melissa Romano in her campaign to become Superintendent of Public Instruction in Montana.

Romano, a 16-year career elementary math teacher and the 2018 Montana Teacher of the Year, has been recognized as a leader in her field. 

This is Romano’s second race against opponent Elsie Arntzen. In 2016 Romano lost the election by a narrow 3% margin. Arntzen, a voucher supporter, was a state legislator prior to becoming State Superintendent. As a legislator she voted consistently for school choice legislation, and as Superintendent has continued to support school choice initiatives.

The Billings Gazette recently reported that school choice is a “line in the sand” for Romano. She has been endorsed by three prior State Superintendents who served from 1989-2017. In their endorsement of Romano, they accuse Arntzen of “attending private school rallies, applauding budget proposals that would cut millions from Montana’s public schools, mismanaging her office, and illegally diverting aid to private and for-profit schools.”

Romano is a strong supporter of a robust public preschool program, but opposed state funds flowing to private preschools.

Please be sure to cast your ballot for this career educator and public school supporter on November 3rd.

You can post this endorsement using this link.

No candidate authorized this ad. It is paid for by Network for Public Education Action, New York, New York.

Jan Resseger writes here with her usual lucidity about the Espinoza decision, which cut another hole in Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state,” a long-sought goal of the radical right. To anyone who refused to vote for Hillary in 2016, this decision is yours.

Please open to read it all, along with the links.

She begins:

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court released a long awaited decision in the church-state separation case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 decision. NY Times Supreme Court reporter, Adam Liptak quotes Roberts’ argument: “‘A state need not subsidize private education…. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.’ In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the majority opinion ‘weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.’”

Although historically, religious liberty and church-state cases have been decided on the basis of the First Amendment’s “establishment clause,” this week’s decision rests on what’s known as the “free exercise clause.”

In a particularly lucid explication of this week’s decision, VOX’s Ian Millhiser explains: “The First Amendment places two limits on the government’s interaction with religion: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’… Thus, the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause limits the government’s ability to advance religion, and the free Exercise Clause limits the government’s ability to target people of faith. The government is simultaneously obligated both to stay out of religious matters and to protect the rights of the faithful—a dual obligation that courts have often found difficult to reconcile.”

Millhiser continues, explaining that Roberts’ decision rests on a 2017 precedent: “As Roberts argues in his opinion, the result in Espinoza flows from the Court’s previous decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer… which held that the state of Missouri could not exclude religious organizations from a state program that offered ‘grants to help public and private schools, nonprofit daycare centers, and other nonprofit entities purchase rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires.’… According to Roberts, Trinity Lutheran reached the ‘unremarkable conclusion that disqualifying otherwise eligible recipients from a public benefit solely because of their religious character imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that triggers the most exacting scrutiny.’ Just as the Missouri recycled tires program ‘discriminated against the Church simply because of what it is—a church,’ the Montana constitution ‘bars religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious character of the schools.’”

The current Espinoza case was brought by several mothers whose children are enrolled in the Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, Montana. Plaintiffs were represented by—and clearly recruited by—the Institute for Justice, a far-right, libertarian law firm which, for years, has set out to challenge First Amendment protection of the separation of religion from government. In this case, the Montana Supreme Court had already partially shut down the tuition tax credit program at issue in the case. Writing for Education Dive, Linda Jacobson reports that the program will now continue: “In Montana, the ruling means the scholarship program continues because the Montana Supreme Court granted a partial stay, allowing existing scholarship funds to be distributed while awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.”

The Espinoza decision will affect the 37 states with what are known as Blaine Amendments in their state constitutions. Jacobson explains: “The statutes are named for James G. Blaine, a U.S. representative who tried, following the Civil War, to get a bill through Congress that would have denied any aid to sectarian schools. His legislation failed, but efforts to write such language into state constitutions were clearly more successful.”

Why are supporters of public education so concerned about the implications of this case? In the first place, voucher programs drain needed tax dollars out of public schools. In Ohio, for example, a state that already permits public funds to flow to religious schools, EdChoice vouchers extract $4,650 for each elementary and middle school voucher and $6,000 for each high school voucher—right from the local public school district’s budget.

Another serious problem with vouchers is that the law protects students’ rights in public schools, but the same laws do not protect students enrolled in private schools. Writing for Slate, Mark Joseph Stern worries that now, after Espinoza: “Taxpayers in most of the country will soon start finding overtly religious education—including the indoctrination of children into a faith that might clash with their own conscience. For example, multiple schools that participate in Montana’s scholarship program inculcate students with a virulent anti-LGBTQ ideology that compares homosexuality to bestiality and incest. But many Montanans of faith believe LGBTQ people deserve respect and equality because they are made in the image of God. What does the Supreme Court have to say to Montanans who do not wish to fund religious indoctrination that contradicts their own beliefs?”

Our reader Laura Chapman read the Supreme Court decision in the Espinoza case, both the majority decision and the dissents. The majority decision said that if a state offers a scholarship program for private schools, it must include religious schools. The dissenters, Chapman noted, pointed out that the Montana Supreme Court had already invalidated the private scholarship program. So the case was already moot because Montana no longer has a scholarship program for private schools! The Espinoza family will not get $150 (the amount that used to be paid to families that sought help in paying private school tuition) because Montana no longer offers scholarships to private schools, and thus will not be affected by today’s decision!

She wrote:

I downloaded the text of ESPINOZA ET AL. v. MONTANA DEPARTMENT OF REVENUE ET AL and read the dissents. Here are a few gems, all noting that the scholarship in question had already been made invalid by Montana’s Supreme Court !!

BREYER, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which KAGAN, J., joined as to Part I.

I shall assume, for purposes of this opinion, that petitioners’ free exercise claim survived the Montana Supreme Court’s wholesale invalidation of the tax credit program. (This is a feature in all of the dissents. Essentially, the dissenters claim there is no case because the program was made vaporware by the Montana Supreme Court.)
Breyer then begins an extended discussion of “entanglements” of the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause: and concludes that “The majority’s approach and its conclusion in this case, I fear, risk the kind of entanglement and conflict that the Religion Clauses are intended to prevent. I consequently dissent.

Well, that is the summary, but it is followed by at least 6000 words, as if prepared to show his colleagues that he had considered a lot of precedents that had no direct bearing on the case, these dating back to Madison and Jefferson’s Wall of Separation in Antebellum Virginia, along with hypothetical questions about state funding for charter schools (with a 2003 citation).

GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which KAGAN, J., joined.

Recall that the Montana court remedied the state constitutional violation by striking the scholarship program in its entirety. Under that decree, secular and sectarian schools alike are ineligible for benefits, so the decision cannot be said to entail differential treatment based on petitioners’ religion.

Put somewhat differently, petitioners argue that the Free Exercise Clause requires a State to treat institutions and people neutrally when doling out a benefit—and neutrally is how Montana treats them in the wake of the state court’s decision. Accordingly, the Montana Supreme Court’s decision does not place a burden on petitioners’ religious exercise. Petitioners may still send their children to a religious school. And the Montana Supreme Court’s decision does not pressure them to do otherwise.

SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

The majority holds that a Montana scholarship program unlawfully discriminated against religious schools by excluding them from a tax benefit. The threshold problem, however, is that such tax benefits no longer exist for anyone in the State. The Montana Supreme Court invalidated the program on state-law grounds, thereby foreclosing the as-applied challenge petitioners raise here.

Indeed, nothing required the state court to uphold the program or the state legislature to maintain it. The Court nevertheless reframes the case and appears to ask whether a longstanding Montana constitutional provision is facially invalid under the Free Exercise Clause, even though petitioners disavowed bringing such a claim. But by resolving a constitutional question not presented, the Court fails to heed Article III principles older than the Religion Clause it expounds.

Laura Chapman added: I am not a lawyer, but I cannot understand why this case even got on the docket of the US. Supreme Court. It was settled in the Montana Supreme Court, made invalid, struck entirely.

Sarah Vowell is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times where this article appeared. Proponents of vouchers often claim that the state prohibitions on public funding of religious schools were birthed in anti-Catholic bigotry, based on the Blaine Amendment, which was offered as a Constitutional amendment after the Civil War but failed to be adopted. Many states wrote their own “baby Blaine” amendments to assure that no public money went to religious schools–not just Catholic schools, but religious schools of any kind. The case now before the Supreme Court, Espinoza v. Montana, asserts the claim that refusal to fund religious schools is bigotry towards those schools. Sarah Vowell explains that the Montana constitution was rewritten in 1972. It included a strict prohibition against funding religious schools because the people of Montana can barely afford to pay for the public schools they have. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Espinoza, it will impoverish the public schools of Montana. That is why the suit is supported by the far-right Institute for Justice and their funders such as the Walton and DeVos families.


Scrutinizing the avuncular sphinx Chief Justice John Roberts throughout the impeachment trial of President Trump, I kept wondering whether he will preserve or ransack the legacy of the framers we revere — framers like the Republican Betty Babcock and the Democrat Dorothy Eck. It’s the question on all Americans’ minds: Do Mr. Roberts and his eight co-workers fully appreciate the public-spirited grandeur of the winter of 1971-72, when 100 Montanans, including housewives, ministers, a veterinarian and a beekeeper, gathered at the state capital, Helena, for the constitutional convention, affectionately nicknamed the “Con Con”?

The question haunts the current Supreme Court case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. This newspaper has called the dispute over whether state tax credits can apply to donations for scholarships to private religious schools “a proxy battle over school choice.” However, the back story is so clumsily specific to Montana’s small population and immense geography that the case doesn’t entirely translate to states where people outnumber cows.

The novelist Ivan Doig wrote that in the scruffy Montana of yore, “when you met up with someone apt to give you trouble from his knuckles, the automatic evaluation was ‘too much Butte in him.’” When, as the grateful graduate of a Montana public school, I was determining whether I had a duty to stick up for the Con Con framers regarding the Espinoza case, I spotted a sequence in the web address of an article about it in The Atlantic that read “montana-bigoted-laws.” At that moment this Bozeman girl had too much Butte in her. Dorothy Eck wrote no “bigoted” anti-Christian laws — she was a blatant Methodist!

Before it ended up at the Supreme Court, the Espinoza ruckus started with a $150 tax credit. Montanans will make an appellate-level stink about chump change because that’s the only available change. The tiny tax base is basically eight coal miners, a couple of ski lift operators, that family in Belgrade making organic goat cheese and Huey Lewis.

Kendra Espinoza counted on scholarships to help pay for her daughters’ tuition at Stillwater Christian, a private school in Kalispell. No wonder. At up to $8,620 per year, ninth grade is more than $1,000 higher than undergraduate tuition at the University of Montana. What we called a “band room” at Bozeman High, Stillwater considers a “conservatory.”

School choice partisans pounced when Ms. Espinoza and other private-school parents sued to overturn the State Supreme Court’s ruling that the tax credit for scholarship donations violated the “no-aid” clause for sectarian schools in the Montana Constitution. They argued that it was time to erase “antiquated” anti-Catholic laws against public funding for private religious education. The subtle former state senator Matthew Monforton denounced the law as “Jim Crow for Christians.”

It is worth pointing out that the eighth word of the ’72 Constitutionis “God.” In the first draft of the preamble, some wistful Jeffersonians tried to thank the “Spirit of the Creator” for “the quiet beauty of our state.” They were shot down in the Bill of Rights Committee because “not mentioning ‘God’ specifically would be unacceptable” and so they “voted unanimously to retain Him in the Preamble.” The framers included a priest from Great Falls, Mitt Romney’s cousin Miles, the self-proclaimed “first Roman Catholic ever elected to anything in Yellowstone County,” and enough Presbyterians to warrant their own photo op.

While the ’72 Constitution’s no-aid clause looks similar to its predecessor in the 1889 original, the update was motivated by fortifying public schools, not shunning people of faith. Rethinking education was, along with open government and the right to individual dignity, part of the Con Con’s crusade to take a stand that no one dared dream of at statehood: that Montana would be a state in a republic and not an exceedingly wide company town.

“We were known as the state that wore the copper collar, controlled by the Anaconda Company,” Ms. Eck once said. A swashbuckler for the League of Women Voters, she referred to the copper company lording over the “richest hill on earth” and thus the newspapers and politicians. “There were stories of how their lobbyists would sit in the balcony at the legislature and do thumbs up and thumbs down of how people should vote.”

The Con Con delegates, who arranged themselves not by party but alphabetically, were so preoccupied with the public interest that they agreed public funds could be spent only on public agencies. During deliberations on the no-aid clause, the pastor of Helena’s Plymouth Congregational led the charge of “preserving our public school system,” preaching, “that’s what this issue is all about. I don’t think we ought to dilute that in any way.” (Diluting that is the aim of Espinoza.)

Article X, Section 1, of the ’72 Constitution proclaims that it is the duty of the state to “develop the full educational potential of each person.” That is an expensive ideal in a desolate wasteland. Public schools are supposed to be a volume business, but tell that to the Great Plains. The state of Montana has about 60,000 fewer inhabitants than the number of students enrolled in New York City’s public school system. I have volunteered in that epic system, which is to say I have had to excuse myself from a struggling student to go cry in a bathroom, so I sympathize with an urban kid who might eye a parochial school as her best chance.

That school choice logic doesn’t apply to Montana, where the poorest schools often have the smallest class sizes. The Montana Free Press reported that out in Prairie County, “Terry High School’s sophomore class has just five students this school year.” Starting in first grade, my friend Genevieve would ride her horse Croppy to the Malmborg School near Bozeman Pass; one year she and her brother Pete were half the student body.

When USA Today asked Ms. Espinoza if she had any qualms about what her case could mean for public schools, she insisted, “They have plenty of money.”

How I wish that were true. Last year, the public school district in Kalispell announced $1.7 million in budget cuts, Great Falls recently lost almost a hundred teachers, and Billings just announced about $4 million in cuts that mean canceling fifth grade orchestra and band.

A Supreme Court decision on Espinoza is expected in June. If the justices rule against Montana’s voters, tax credits for private school scholarship donations could surge. Revenue that might revive the Billings fifth grade band program could underwrite the fifth grade band at a pricey Kalispell private school.

Kalispell is the seat of Flathead County, which between 2000 and 2015 added more than 15,000 jobs just as rural Choteau County was losing more than 300. Overturning the no-aid clause will shovel more money into the cities (where most of the private schools are) and kick Choteau while it’s down, thereby thwarting the framers’ plan to spare needy districts from taxing “their residents three or four times as much as rich districts to provide less than half as much money per student.”

The public schools the framers conjured ask the taxpayers to splurge on fairness, not privilege, to pull together, not away. That beekeeper, those clergymen and moms chartered a state in a republic where a first grader on horseback is supposed to be as big and important as the mountains. As the Supreme Court justices ponder whether to upend all that over what appears to be a $150 trifle, I’ll pass along this lesson of Montana winters: A collapsed roof starts with a single snowflake.

Sarah Vowell, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of “The Wordy Shipmates” and “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.”

Bill Phillis of the Adequacy and Equity Coalition of Ohio fears that the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, to which Trump added two religious zealots, is on the verge of eliminating the separation of church and state. This would be a huge victory for Betsy DeVos, ALEC, and the anti-government crusaders of the Right. Some states—such as Ohio, Indiana, and Florida— have already decided to ignore their state constitutions, to fund religious schools with vouchers.

The irony is that vouchers are a lose-lose proposition. The public schools—attended by nearly 90% of all pupils—lose finding, lay off teachers, cut programs. The children take away a voucher worth $5,000-$7,000 and get a worse education than their public school peers.

Bill Phillis writes:

The U.S. Supreme Court is moving toward the concept of forcing states to fund private religious schools on the same basis as public schools
The so-called Blaine Amendments in the constitutions of 39 states prohibit the states from funding private religious schools. Pages 235 through 238 of the Ninth Edition of American Public School Law by Kern Alexander and M. David Alexander provide a succinct and thoughtful review of the background and implication of President Grant’s proposed amendment introduced by U.S. House Speaker James G. Blaine after the Civil War.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been heard to say that the constitutional provisions prohibiting the states from funding private religious schools are rooted in bigotry. She may have picked up on Justice Clarence Thomas’ assertions in Mitchell v Helms that if states don’t provide funds to religious schools they are manifesting hostility toward religion. Further Thomas asserted that the state’s constitutional provisions were subtle devices to deprive Catholic schools of public money; thus a manifestation of anti-Catholic bigotry.
The James G. Blaine family was Catholic. A close cousin established the Holy Cross Sisters. Neither he nor President Grant demonstrated any anti-Catholic biases. They were just attempting to unify the country after the Civil War. Grant believed the key to unity was a “common school education.”
The Blaine Amendment which merely prohibited public funds from flowing to religious schools, passed the House but failed in the U.S. Senate. Subsequently many states adopted constitutional amendments that accomplished the intent of President Grant’s proposal.
These “Blaine” provisions in the state constitutions are in accord with the first sentence in the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, …” There is no contradiction between the states’ constitutional provisions and the Bill of Rights; however, of late, the U.S. Supreme Court, contrary to earlier decisions, is advancing a different constitutional philosophy in Agostini (1997), Mitchell (2000), Zelman (2002), Davey (2004), and Trinity Lutheran (2017), all of which permit Congress and states to provide public funds to religious institutions and schools.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Montana case in which the high court in Montana ruled against vouchers on the basis of its constitution’s prohibitions. If the Court rules against Montana, the “Blaine” amendments in the 39 states could be rendered invalid.
Montana’s constitutional prohibition of public funding to religious schools and other religious institutions is among the most stringent “no-aid clauses” in the nation. Article X section 6 states:
(1)   The legislature, counties, cities, towns, school districts, and public corporations shall not make any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies, or any grant of lands or other property for any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect or denomination.
(2)   This section shall not apply to funds from federal sources provided to the state for the express purpose of distribution to non-public education.
Notwithstanding the stringent nature of Montana’s “no aid” provision, a ruling against the Montana decision would affect states that have less stringent constitutional measures.

Steve Bullock entered the Democratic primary race late, and he starts at the back of the pack.

He needs to have 130,000 individuals contributions in order to qualify for the next debate.

I am asking you to send Steve Bullock $1 to keep him on the stage and to encourage him to talk about what he has done to improve public schools in Montana.

What he has going for him is two things:

1) he is the only candidate in the stage who won re-election in a red state that went for Trump by 20 points. In other words, he knows how to connect to people as a problem-solver who listens. He proved that he can win in a red state.

2) he has a solid pro-public education record. Montana has only two charter schools and both are under the direct supervision of local school districts. They exist because the district needs them, not because an entrepreneur or a charter chain has decided to open a charter.

Steve Bullock is unabashedly pro-public education and pro-union. NPE Action examined his record and gave him high marks for his commitment to public schools.

I am not asking you to support Steve Bullock. I have not endorsed him or anyone else.

I encourage you to send him $1 so you can be counted as a contributor and help him earn a place in the next big debate.

Somehow I missed this important story when it happened last December. The Montana Supreme Court struck down a tuition tax credit program as a transparent effort to violate the state constitution’s prohibition of sending public funds to religious schools.  Other states have adopted such devious strategies to send public money to religious schools, despite their state constitution. Florida is a leader in ignoring its state constitution.

“The Montana Supreme Court delivered a win for church-state separation and public education last week when it struck down the state’s private school voucher program.

“Americans United, joined by other civil-rights organizations, had urged the court through a friend-of-the-court brief to prevent the voucher scheme – called a tuition tax credit program – from funding private, religious education. Our brief explained that the program violated the “no-aid” provision in Montana’s constitution, which protects residents’ religious freedom by ensuring taxpayer money isn’t used for religious purposes – including religious education.

“The Montana Supreme Court agreed with us: “We ultimately conclude the Tax Credit Program aids sectarian schools in violation of Article X, Section 6, and that it is unconstitutional in all of its applications,” wrote the court majority.

“Montana taxpayers should never be forced to fund religious education – that’s a fundamental violation of religious freedom,” said AU president and CEO Rachel Laser. “The Montana Supreme Court’s decision protects both church-state separation and public education. It’s a double win.”

“The state’s legislature passed the tuition tax credit program in 2015. It allows “donors” to give money to organizations that pay for students’ private school tuition, then the state gives the “donors” a full credit on their tax bills – so it’s not really a donation after all. This is essentially a voucher program because it funnels public money to private schools.”