A big part of Better Montana Jobs is Montana’s kids; they will grow up to create and work in these better jobs.  It’s critical that we consider their education.

So let’s consider this – Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Yet that is what we are doing in K-12 education in Montana. For decades we have been throwing money at our schooling problem and expecting a different outcome, yet student achievement keeps dropping.

We have many high-quality, dedicated teachers in our schools. However, in spite of their hard work, many of our kids are not succeeding. Montana spends over $11,000 per student per year, yet the most recent statewide ACT scores show that Montana students have dropped below the national average in achievement, with only 23% of our high school graduates being proficient in reading, writing, math, and science (down from 27% just last year). Plus amongst students from lower income families, more than 1 in 4 do not graduate high school at all.

I believe the solution is parental choice in education. Choice works in all other areas of our lives, and it works in education too. If you are in a grocery store and see multiple brands of a similar product, you will choose the product that best meets your needs. The companies of the products know that, and will work to improve their products so you will choose them. The result of choice is better quality and a better “fit” for the consumer.

Each child is different and one size of education does not fit all students effectively. In every state that has enacted school choice legislation, academic performance in the public schools has gone up or, in some limited cases, stayed the same – there is no documented case of school choice negatively impacting academic performance in public schools. Give parents the ability to choose where their kids go to school and we will see the quality of all options improve.

Also consider Montana’s education policy. In addition to not having a school choice option, Montana is the only state in the country with a teacher policy effectiveness grade of “F” according to the National Council of Teacher Quality (NCTQ). This grade is reflective of the state policies that dictate how teachers are trained, hired, evaluated, and retained. Imagine how the quality of our public schools, and the success of our students, would improve with the motivations of both a school choice option and better policies for preparing, measuring, and retaining good teachers.

Although there is no school choice option in Montana yet, there is hope for parents who want to send their children to a school based on their needs rather than their address. 15 years ago, ACE Scholarships began in Denver, and it has since raised high school graduation rates for low-income students in the program from 51% to 92%. Seeing these results, we brought ACE Scholarships to Montana, and after only two full years we now have 700 Montana students from lower income families attending the school of their choice all over the state. Aspen is one of these students. As a freshman in a public school, she struggled with people and encounters that focused on sex, drinking, profanity, and even bullying. She wanted something different for herself, but being from a single income family, with multiple siblings, there was only so much her parents could do. ACE came alongside her, providing a $2,000 scholarship for the school of her choice, but that only covered a portion of the $5,000 per year cost. Aspen has worked the past two summers at McDonald’s to earn the remainder of her tuition. That is how important choice is to her, and hers is a life changed.

A good K-12 education is critical to the future of our kids. It is critical for further education after high school and better jobs, and ultimately it directly improves the economy for our state. We need a different approach to education policy in Montana for the sake of our kids and our economic future.