Published Online: February 14, 2001
Published in Print: February 14, 2001, as State Journal

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A Question of Fairness

Rep. Joe Balyeat is no fan of Montana's system for financing its schools. So the Republican state lawmaker has decided to get right to what he views as the root of the problem: the state constitution's guarantee of an "equal educational opportunity for every person."

Joe Balyeat

In a move that has provoked strong opposition from Montana educators, the newly elected legislator has introduced a bill that would require a statewide referendum on a measure to amend the current equity clause. The new version would include a phrase stipulating that equality is not measured solely through funding.

"It just clarifies that equality in funding does not mean educational equality," Mr. Balyeat said. "It will get us out of a court- mandated funding formula that is hamstringing local school districts."

Mr. Balyeat had initially proposed replacing the current equity clause with a provision assuring schools a "reasonable" level of funding. It drew so much fire, however, that he changed it in an amendment Feb. 7.

Based on the existing equity clause, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the state's school finance system in 1989. The revamped formula gives school districts an equal base amount and additional per-pupil funding.

Rep. Balyeat said the revised system was based on the faulty assumption that funding is the yardstick of educational quality. He said his bill, which is pending in the House judiciary committee this month, would give school boards back the local control the finance changes cost them.

But Lance Melton, a spokesman for the Montana School Boards Association, said his group disagrees. And he said the amendment failed to make the bill more palatable. "That was not a meaningful change, because it still allows the legislature to step away from commitment to equitable funding," he said. "I don't think this bill will make it out of committee."

—Lisa Fine

Vol. 20, Issue 22, Page 20

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