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Western GOP House candidates talk education issues, policy

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Butte children head back to school

Eighth graders seated 6 feet apart in Rochelle Ryan's social studies class listen as she outlines her syllabus on the first day of instruction at East Middle School in Butte in this 2020 file photo.

Republicans in Montana and across the country have made education a staple issue this election, stirring debate over curriculum and pandemic health measures issued by school boards and state and federal governments.

The five Republicans running for Montana’s western district are former congressman and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke; former state lawmaker and statewide candidate Al Olszewski; Mary Todd, a church leader and small business owner from Kalispell; Mitch Heuer, a home builder from Whitefish; and Matt Jette, a school teacher from Missoula.

Although most education policy is set locally or the state level, the candidates are highlighting education as a larger measure of issues in the country and often framed as indicators of a larger cultural disagreement with Democrats.

They have also posed a variety of policy positions on education, ranging from a need to hone in on the basics to jumping into debate on controversial issues such as critical race theory, or CRT, and gender and sex education. The issues are often carried under the umbrella of parental rights in education.

Several candidates in interviews and appearances praised parents and efforts to amplify the voice of parents in education.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for school boards in Montana,” Zinke said in an interview. “There’s an interest in getting involved because I think there’s a consensus that you know, democracy is fragile and when you don’t get involved, you get what you get.”

Olszewski believes that as legislators and parents have focused on other issues, the quality of education has declined.

“We’re watching parents getting engaged with our schools boards,” Olszewski said in an interview. “Whether we like it or not, they’re at least engaging and they’re showing up, and they’re engaging and that’s a good thing.”

He also supports passage of Florida’s parental rights bill.

“I applaud Florida for their parental rights bill, and it was not about ‘Don’t say gay,’ it was about don’t groom and sexualize our children before they have critical decision making,” he said.

“Don’t say gay,” is a label often used by opponents of a newly enacted Florida law prohibiting discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

The increased parental engagement has come as a result of concerns raised over curriculum as well as health measures such as masking. Those topics have become particularly divisive politically, and candidates are seeking to assure Republican voters that they plan to push back.

Zinke, in talking about the U.S. House using the budget to shape policy, mentioned CRT specifically.

“CRT, gun rights, I am positive between now and the end of the year that there will be a lot of regulation put in place that Montana is not going to like, that goes against the way we live our life out here, and we can use the budget, that is a tool, to mitigate the damage,” he said.

Although some federal grants requires states or districts to meet certain provisions, curriculum in Montana is set at the state and local, not federal, levels.

CRT is a graduate-level area of academics and legal analysis focused on systemic racism in areas such as the criminal justice system, housing and education. It is not taught in Montana K-12 schools but has become a major GOP issue both locally and nationally.

Republicans have largely maligned critical race theory, characterizing it as an effort by the left to sow racial divisions in the country and in classrooms specifically.

Similarly, gender and sex education has also come under the microscope for Republicans nationally this cycle, highlighted by contentious school board meetings, new laws such as Florida’s, and in some cases, even elevating to accusations of indoctrination.

“The parents absolutely should be in charge of what their kids are exposed to with education,” Heuer said at the Kalispell candidate forum. “I think we need a national revamping of the education system including sex education.”

Heuer said in an interview that many solutions to issues facing the country start with education, and supports more emphasis on vocation-technical education in middle and high schools.

Jette is adamant in his campaign that the quality of education is declining, saying many teachers are failing and parents often do not follow up. Students learn to efficiently pursue grades at the expense of reading the great works of literature and learning important skills in analysis and debate, he says, which has reverberations into today’s society and politics.

“I don’t think our children, our students are actually learning how to read well, they’re not learning how to write well, and worst of all they’re not learning how to think well and discuss and deliberate and debate issues that are complex,” he said at a forum at hosted by College Republicans and Montana State University “When we talk about education, let’s make sure we have a plan of what education ought to be.”

Jette also believes his own story, overcoming learning disabilities to earn advanced degrees and start his own business, could serve as inspiration to Montana students struggling in the system.

Todd has called for a return to basics in her campaign with a focus on preserving children’s innocence. She blasts teacher unions and encourages parents to regain control of the larger education system.

Todd also alleges a broader conspiracy to harm children and the country.

“I’m telling you tonight that there’s a design to destroy our country,” she said. “Critical race theory, BLM, what they’re teaching our kids in school is all very destructive to our nation and I think there’s a design behind it.”

Jette rebutted Todd at the forum.

“In terms of education, CRT or whatever the case may be, I think for example CRT is just bad history, but I don’t think it’s by design,” he said. “No one is sitting in a room and trying to destroy America. You may think it’s going result in that and that’s fine, but there’s no grand scheme. There’s people thinking this is right and other people not thinking it’s right and that’s where the conversation takes place.”

A majority of the candidates have also stated support for eliminating or restructuring the U.S. Department of Education.

Olszewski, at a forum in Bozeman, said “we should get rid of the Department of Education,” adding local jurisdictions should work with parents to develop quality education.

Jette, noting that he has declined to join a teacher’s union in Montana, also advocates for dismantling the department, saying it has spent billions for mediocre results including no uptick in standardized test scores.

Todd believes the Department of Education should be dismantled and rebuilt. The federal government establishes policies that take rights from parents, and those decisions should be made by the states, she said. Federal programs such as Common Core have also delivered poor results, and U.S. test scores compared to other countries shows that the country’s educational system needs to be revamped, she said.

Heuer does not support eliminating the Department of Education, but would advocate for a revamping of a national education system and national standards program. That could include more vocational mixed with educational classes as well as potentially more paths to fund attendance at the college level.

A Zinke spokesperson said he would support elimination of the department. Federal funding should be allocated to states due to "too many mandates and policies written by teachers' unions, lobbyists and advocacy groups in D.C.," the spokesperson said. 

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.


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State Reporter

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

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