SPRING 1997 Montanan - Volume 14, Number 3
(PAINTING) On the Windowseat, an oil painting, is part of UM's Museum of Fine Arts Fra Dana collection.
For other Dana paintings, see: http://www.umt.edu/partv/famus.
by Patrick Hutchins
When Ellen Riemer recalls her first teaching job in a one-room school north of Hinsdale, Montana, it's the community that stands out. During the winter, one of the older boys would come in early to light the stove. It burned lignite, the brown coal which the fathers dug out of the prairie and hauled to school. When the weather got really bad, the families went in on a load of hotter-burning bituminous from Roundup. Riemer, who later taught at Paxson School in Missoula for thirty-two years, remembers the families of her sixteen students as fiercely dedicated to educating their children, no matter how isolated they were. That dedication persists today, though its form has changed and the sense of community that underlies it has frayed. Today Hinsdale's school has its own home page on the Internet. In Saco, where Riemer was born, the K-12 school is fully networked with eighty-five terminals and two computer labs, and it offers a Spanish language course originating from Scobey, 146 miles to the east. Yet Montana's historically staunch support of public education faces stiff challenges. The social, political and technological forces that have reshaped America have left our schools struggling to keep up.
Asking More of Our Public SchoolsSchools do a lot more today than they once did, says Jean Luckowski, professor of curriculum and instruction at UM's School of Education. "Children with special needs, the hard-to-teach-kids, are no longer simply missing from schools," she says. "And those few kids can absorb a lot of time and resources." School sports programs must now, by federal mandate, include girls and young women. Many of the state's Catholic schools have closed, leaving public schools to take up the slack. And on the seven Indian reservations, native language and culture have been added to the regular curriculum. It all adds up to more responsibility for the public school teacher and more demand for the public dollar. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Nancy Keenan, who grew up in Anaconda, sees a different kind of student in the classroom than when she was a girl. "They're more independent, more used to doing critical thinking," Keenan says. "They also feel more disenfranchised. This is a mobile society that's grown away from a sense of community, and we see that as much in rural schools as we do in the cities." Yet she is quick to credit Montanans for their support: "Parents are concerned and involved," she insists. "Ninety percent of our mill levies pass. Unfortunately, 10 percent of kids don't have involved parents, and those kids are driving us crazy." Keenan also worries about the unregulated home schooling movement in Montana, and what she sees as a concerted effort by the religious right to dominate the agenda of school boards in small communities. She points to the recent move in Three Forks to ban Thoreau from the school libraries. "It's an interesting time for the public schools," she says. "There are lots of distractions from the real issues."
Montana's Record of SuccessDespite the distractions, Montana's K-12 schools have notched an impressive record. The National Assessment for Educational Progress recently rated Montana first among all states in math and reading. In college entrance tests, Montana students scored above the national average, with 70 percent of high school graduates going on to college. The state's high school completion rate is the eighth highest in the nation. Says Kathleen Miller, who keeps an eye on the schools as associate dean of UM's School of Education: "Given the resources we have, we're doing a fine job." All of this may be threatened if current trends in funding continue. When the 1993 legislature slashed $50 million from education, per-student funding tumbled to levels that are lower today in real dollars than they were in 1992. Today the number of school districts requesting deferrals to operate below accreditation standards is up. Indeed, funding is nearly at the level that prompted several underfunded school lawsuits in 1989. Montana's Governor, Marc Racicot, defends the state's commitment, pointing out that 60 to 65 percent of the budget is spent on education. He sees broad-based tax reform as the best hope for education in the long run. "It's not that Montanans don't believe in education," Racicot says. "It's that they are so strained by escalating property taxes and other costs associated with local government that there's not a lot of room left for them without being placed financially in harm's way."
The Montana University SystemWhen environmental studies Professor Hank Harrington started teaching at UM in 1971, he says the University was a different-and better-place. "Classes were smaller," he recalls, "and people were much more involved in actual teaching than they are now. The student-to-faculty ratio has risen tremendously. We're way above where we should be to offer a compassionate education." Indeed, the easiest trend to spot in the last fifty years is the influx of additional students. Just before World War II, enrollment at UM hovered just below 2,000. After the war, the new GI Bill opened the gates of American colleges and universities to a flood of returning soldiers. At UM, more than 3,250 students crowded the campus in fall 1946. The cost of a year of college ranged from $477.50 to $677.50, with Uncle Sam picking up most of the soldiers' tabs. As a nation and a state, we had decided to invest in public education. Tuition was kept low by state and federal subsidies, and between 1950 and 1974 enrollment in the University System increased from 5,000 to more than 22,000 students. UM President George Dennison, who has chronicled the progress of the state's higher education, observed that the low tuition created a "seemingly insatiable demand for higher education." But who would pay for it?
Who Benefits? Who Pays?To the question posed by educational economist Howard Bowen regarding public education, "Who benefits, and who pays?" Montana's policy makers once answered loudly and clearly: Society benefits most, so society will pay most. Over the years, however, that response-in Montana and across America-has been almost completely reversed. Students themselves now see their education mainly in terms of personal economic benefit. A recent study conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles and the American Council on Education found that the top educational priority for entering freshmen had changed in the past thirty years from developing "a meaningful philosophy of life" to becoming "very well-off financially." Accordingly, the tab for higher education has been shifted to the students. Over the years, Montana's legislators have looked for ways to cover the growing gap between costs and the traditional funding sources-the General Fund, the six-mill levy and tuition. Tuition was the wild card. Students saw tuition rise 504 percent between 1974 and 1994. "By the latter date," Dennison wrote, "Montana ranked nearly dead last in support for higher education, but not because of a lack of public commitment. The state simply did not have the resources."
Restructuring Higher EducationToday, tuition increases have outpaced inflation, and demand is at an all-time high. With almost 12,000 students enrolled in UM alone (and nearly 28,000 in the University System), Montana faces some tough choices. Richard Crofts, Montana's commissioner of higher education, is one of the people making those choices. His response has been to reduce or eliminate programs that served few students, to consolidate and strengthen the remaining programs and to increase faculty "productivity." Nearly 100 programs have been axed or consolidated statewide, including undergraduate programs in German at Montana State University in Billings and in agricultural economics at MSU-Bozeman; a master's program in metallurgy at Montana Tech; and doctorate programs in zoology and sociology at UM-Missoula. At UM-Missoula alone, more than 1,500 seats were freed up in 1996 for courses in greater demand. The University System also gave back nearly $1 million to the General Fund in areas where projected enrollments overshot actual students. Says Crofts, "In terms of restructuring, the [University] System and the state are significantly ahead of most other states. It's a great bargain for the people of Montana."
At What Price Productivity?Not everyone is pleased with Crofts' bargain. Professors asked to squeeze an additional three-credit course into their already jammed teaching schedules may find that there's no longer time to help individual students or to further their own research. The issue of how to ensure quality, accessible education is still being argued. Dick Dailey, UM professor of management and president of the University Teachers' Union, believes there's a fundamental misunderstanding among legislators and the public about what university teachers do. While critics, he says, understand the teaching, they don't take into account the enormous amount of time spent in faculty governance, research and advising. "I've been in this business since 1956, and my own parents still don't understand what l do," says Dailey, chuckling. Even before the restructuring began, George Dennison noted that Montana faculty and staff carried "about once again the load of peers elsewhere," and that conditions had "deteriorated to the extent that change must occur or serious damage will result."
Technology: White Knight or Red Herring?Many are clearly looking for a technological fix. The University System is counting on its new Information Technology Resource Center to help bring its tradition-bound campuses into the cyber-century. In the not-too-distant future, students may be able to earn degrees over the Internet without the expense of moving to a physical campus. Yet how these new teaching technologies will ultimately affect education's bottom line remains unclear. The role emerging information technologies play may ultimately depend on how they make education more satisfying, not just more efficient. "Some are suggesting that we will move from being 'the sage on the stage to the guide at the side,'" says William Farr, history professor and associate director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West. "There are lots of wonderful teaching materials out there right now-taped lectures from great scholars and so forth-that we could be using. But for the most part, that hasn't happened." As long as students want to learn directly from teachers, and teachers want to be teachers, not just technicians running multimedia presentations, Farr believes higher education will remain a face-to-face undertaking.
Facing the futureIronically, the challenges facing Montana's schools stem in part from a solid belief in the benefits of education. That more students now want more education should be cause for hope as we approach the new millenium. Even as the state grapples with economic and social changes that make supporting education more difficult, Farr sees first and foremost a "recurring eternal" quality as each new freshman class arrives with its youth, energy and hope. "Montana students have a wonderful willingness to try things," he says. "And they're determined to get things done." Just how we will be able to provide Hank Harrington's "compassionate education" to everyone and how we will ensure that it is of the highest possible quality remains unclear. What is clear is that Montana will prosper only to the extent that its citizens have the knowledge, skills and understanding to compete successfully in the world. When Ellen Riemer's first employers-a few hard-pressed farm families along the Hi-Line-scraped together enough money to hire a teacher for their kids, they were investing not in some short-term gain, but in the world we live in. Today's Montanans face a similar choice. The decision we reach will be felt longer than anyone can know. M
Patrick Hutchins is a freelance writer living in Missoula.