HELENA — Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series on where the major-party gubernatorial candidates stand, and differ, on leading issues in the state. Today’s article focuses on education.
Democrat Mike Cooney says if he’s elected governor, maintaining and improving the state’s public-education system will be a top priority – including a college-tuition freeze, publicly funded pre-kindergarten and, if possible, higher teacher pay.
“Our education system is the backbone of our economy, that drives our economy,” he told MTN News in a recent interview. “That’s how we prepare the workforce of this state; that’s how we make sure that the entrepreneurs and the businesses of this state have that pipeline of workers that they need to be successful.”
And, while he talks up public schools, he also slams his Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, as someone who wants to use the power of the state to promote and assist private schools.
“He is the one that has said we need to take resources, public dollars, from public education and move it over to private education,” Cooney said. “You cannot call that an investment – stealing money from one and putting it into private education.”
Gianforte has been an advocate in the past for “school choice” – the broader movement that says public money, or tax credits, should be made available to financially assist the education of kids whose families want an alternative to public schools.
He’s also used considerable amounts of his personal fortune to help finance the private, religious school that his children attended in Bozeman and fund scholarships for students attending Montana private schools.
But Gianforte, a former software entrepreneur, told MTN News that his top educational priority as governor would be increasing pay for public-school teachers in Montana.
“Under this current administration, Montana has the lowest starting-teacher salaries in the country,” he said, referring to Lt. Gov. Cooney and his boss, Gov. Steve Bullock. “This is despicable. I think our teachers need to be paid more, particularly our starting teachers.”
Gianforte says he’s convinced that if certain, unnecessary regulations for public schools are repealed, schools will have more money to increase teachers’ pay.
“As I talk to public-school superintendents, I feel like I’m talking to small-business owners,” he says. “They are tied up in red tape that’s preventing money from getting to the classroom.”
When asked if he would support proposals to expand school choice in Montana, such as expanding a recently upheld state tax credit that funds scholarships for private-school students, Gianforte said he’d have to see the proposals.
While he said he believes that “parents know what’s best for their kid” – a veiled reference to school choice – he also said the “vast majority” of Montana children will attend public schools, and that’s where his focus would be.
The tax credit, enacted in 2015, was reinstated in June by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling hailed by school-choice advocates. The court overturned Montana’s Supreme Court, which had said the state’s constitutional ban on public aid to religious schools voided the credit.
Gianforte and several other Republican members of Congress filed a brief last year with the U.S. Supreme Court on the case, arguing to reinstate the tax credit.
Both Cooney and Gianforte also say they’d like to place more emphasis on trade education, both to create good jobs and help fill a shortage of skilled workers in the state.
“These are good-paying jobs, it’s noble work; we ought to connect the dots,” Gianforte says.
Cooney says he’ll be pushing to create publicly funded pre-kindergarten in Montana – which the state doesn’t have now – and to freeze college tuition, which means more state money for public colleges. Both programs are long-standing positions of Democrats.
However, when asked how the state will pay for these efforts, Cooney is non-specific.
“You do it through working on a budget,” Cooney says. “I want the people of Montana to know what my vision for Montana is. I want the people of Montana to know what my values are. … I’m willing to fight for these things, and we’ll figure it out.”
Gianforte, who has called for a freeze on state spending, says starting new education programs is not at the top of his list.
“My priority in public education is to make sure we can get starting teacher salaries up, before we start new programs,” he says.