education equity Montana
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A public meeting to review and approve changes to Montana’s code of ethics for teachers became a flashpoint for debate about diversity and race-based education in public schools Wednesday.

During a hearing of the state Certification Standards and Practices Advisory Council (CSPAC), members took public comment on a proposal to strike a line in the Professional Educators of Montana Code of Ethics stating that an ethical educator “understands and respects diversity” and replace it with “demonstrates an understanding of educational equity and inclusion, and respects human diversity.” The word “equity” quickly drew criticism from more than a dozen members of the public, Gov. Greg Gianforte, and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, both Republicans.

Opponents of the change, which CSPAC ultimately approved in a unanimous vote, asserted that the word “equity” would erode educational standards by urging teachers to pursue equal outcomes among all students. Several speakers also invoked one of education’s most divisive contemporary topics, suggesting without elaboration that the change could lead to the teaching of critical race theory in Montana schools.

Among the people who testified in opposition was Dennison Rivera, Arntzen’s communications director, who said he was speaking not in his official role with the Office of Public Instruction but as a citizen and chair of the Montana Young Republicans. Rivera, who was raised by Honduran and Colombian parents, said he’s tired of people “considering me marginalized or oppressed” and suggested that some white Montanans “try to make everything politically correct” because they are “ashamed of being white.”

“Let’s be honest, this principle here is a component of critical race theory that is banned from Montana and violates federal and state law because it discriminates,” Rivera said of the proposed equity language. “Diversity creates inequity when you favor people based on their race, sex or religion over others. Furthermore, equity eliminates diversity when you eliminate any difference in socialization, such as boys and girls. It makes no logical sense to include contradicting standards in your code of ethics.”

CSPAC Chair Kelly Elder noted at several points during the meeting that the words “equity” and “inclusion” have specific historical definitions in educational contexts. The former, he said, first arose in the early 2000s from an effort to increase student performance and close long-standing achievement gaps. The latter, he continued, has been around even longer, and speaks directly to providing specific accommodations for individual students. Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis, whose organization represents public school teachers and staff, echoed that position in reciting an email sent to her by an educator supportive of the change.

“Equity is the quality of being fair and impartial,” Curtis read. “Good teachers should consistently display fairness and impartiality with their coworkers, students and other stakeholders, rather than attributing some sort of divisive, implied meaning to the word equity.”

Gianforte took the opposing view Tuesday. In a letter to CSPAC, he defined “equity” based on a statement made by Vice President Kamala Harris in November 2020, quoting her as saying, “Equitable treatment means we all end up in the same place.” Gianforte wrote that adding that principle to the teacher code of ethics could have “dire consequences for our students,” claiming that recent revisions to student performance standards in other states were made “in the name of equity.”

“I don’t wish to see Montana’s public schools fall into the traps of promoting a political agenda, in the name of equity, that jeopardizes our students’ opportunities,” Gianforte wrote. “This would do a grave disservice to the students who should, and must, come first.”

Gianforte’s testimony also highlighted disagreement over another definition: the role of CSPAC itself. The governor’s letter, read aloud Wednesday by his education policy adviser, Dylan Klapmeier, claimed that modifying the code of ethics is a “policy decision” that falls under the purview of the Montana Board of Public Education. That position was shared by Arntzen both during her in-person testimony and in a letter she sent to the council Wednesday.

“The purpose of CSPAC is in an advisory capacity only and is not a policymaking authority,” Arntzen wrote. “I believe we must make clear the authority of this board is to report to the Board of Public Education.”

As stated on its website, CSPAC is an advisory board made up of seven Montana educators, appointed by the Board of Education, that researches and provides policy recommendations to the board. And Board of Public Education Executive Director McCall Flynn confirmed for Montana Free Press Wednesday that authority over the code of ethics lies with CSPAC, not the board. It is an aspirational document, Flynn said, outlining the qualities CSPAC considers fundamental to an ethical educator. It is not a state policy and carries no weight of enforcement.

“This is how you should carry yourself when you’re working with students, when you’re out in the community,” Flynn said. “You’ll see that there’s all types of different criteria in there that speaks to how one should act as an educator.”

CSPAC Chair Elder told Klapmeier as much on Wednesday, refuting Gianforte’s assessment of the council’s authority and asking Klapmeier to inform the governor that CSPAC is an advisory council with no dealings in policy matters and that the code of ethics is “purely aspirational.”

“It’s a goal,” Elder said. “It’s a vision of what … a professional educator will look like in the classroom.”

Following the council’s approval of the equity language and other changes, Gianforte doubled down, repeating in a statement that CSPAC “does not have the legal authority to set policy.” He called on the Board of Public Education to “right this politically motivated wrong.”

“CSPAC’s decision this morning puts an extreme political agenda ahead of Montana students,” Gianforte said. “As we’ve seen across the country, promoting equity in education, or the idea that all students end up in the same place with equal results, jeopardizes students’ educational opportunities. Instead, Montana schools should promote equality in education, the idea that every student should enjoy equal opportunity to learn, thrive, and reach his or her full potential. CSPAC’s decision undermines students’ equality of opportunity.”

For more than two decades, the Office of Public Instruction has distributed the Professional Educator Code of Ethics alongside the licenses it issues to Montana educators. Arntzen indicated during her testimony Wednesday that the council has no authority to require her to continue that practice. CSPAC member Rob Watson, superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools, said he understands that Arntzen is under no obligation to share the code.

“If she decides or if the Office of Public Instruction decides not to include this document, I would be disappointed,” Watson said. “But I would continue to pass this document out to the 800 teachers that work for Missoula County Public Schools.”

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...