By Alex Sakariassen MONTANA FREE PRESS
The buzz of a dozen conversations in the Capitol Rotunda all but drowned out the statements and policy pleas of a string of conservative parental rights advocates Monday morning. They spoke of schools being taken over by left-leaning agendas and of their belief that parents have a “God-given and constitutional right” to control what their children learn in public schools.
“I believe that there are multiple factors over the years that have led to the downfall of our nation, and I’ve often wondered if there was even any hope anymore for education. But I have to believe that as long as we are still here, there is still time to turn this around,” said Kendra Espinoza, one of the guest speakers and a Kalispell parent who led a successful 2018 lawsuit challenging Montana’s exclusion of religious private schools from a state tax credit program.
The event, held on the first day of the 2023 Montana Legislature, was organized and promoted by Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen. In a December email announcing the gathering, Arntzen, a Republican, described it as a “celebration of parents” and a continuation of her four-stop, statewide listening tour last month.
In addition to Espinoza, Arntzen’s list of speakers included Alba Pimentel, president of the Yellowstone County chapter of Moms for Liberty. The national nonprofit has made headlines repeatedly over the past two years for its involvement in efforts to overturn pandemic-era health measures in schools and to remove certain LGBTQ-themed books from school libraries. Pimentel said that as a result of such concerns, parents across the country have been labeled “terrorists and insurrectionists.”
“We need to bring the focus back to educating and provide our teachers and children with the basic tools to learn, teach and teach the fundamentals of reading, writing and math,” Pimentel said. “Moms for Liberty stands with the First Amendment, and this does not support pornagraphic reading materials featuring children or the distribution of pornagraphic materials to minors.”
Pimentel also advocated for better funding for special needs education, for increasing student test scores and for bolstering Montana’s teaching workforce, which, she added, is currently “overworked and underpaid.” But she wasn’t alone among Monday’s speakers who addressed what they view as a national culture war in education. Elizabeth and Butch Barton of Three Forks, who identified themselves as grandparents, both centered their comments on the topic of sexual education and what they described as “misinformation” about sexual identification. Both alleged that a freshman sex-ed lesson plan in Belgrade included information about transgender identity and was in part led by a local reproductive health care clinic.
“This is honestly the most important fight of my life, protecting my granddaughters from the psychology that is sweeping this country,” Butch Barton said. “I believe everyone has the right to be who they want to be. That’s a great part about being an American. But society should not have to yield to the fancies of the few and rewrite the societal norms that have been part of this country for years.”
Barton concluded his statements by encouraging lawmakers to prohibit lessons on transgender identity in public schools.
James and Jana Pennington of Billings rounded out Arntzen’s invited speakers. The two fought a high-profile battle last year to change the Billings School District’s enrollment policy to allow students to remain in school up to the age of 20 — a change that enabled their daughter Emily, who has Down syndrome, to graduate alongside her class. Being engaged in a child’s education is the “essential responsibility” given to parents, Jana Pennington said. Based on their experience, James added, he believes that portraying concerned parents as “hostile” is the “most effective tool in keeping them quiet.”
Espinoza came the closest of anyone Monday to outlining a clear policy agenda for the lawmakers milling about the Rotunda and the mezzanine above to consider. Perhaps it’s time for Montana to take a “serious look” at changes to public education, she said, including passing legislation to allow charter schools to operate in the state, to ensure unrestricted access to classrooms for parents, and to enable parents to access per-student state funding for their children regardless of whether they’re enrolled in a public school. The 2021 Montana Legislature featured a host of school choice proposals along those same lines, many of which failed to pass.
For her part, Arntzen sidestepped any overt mention of those same policy goals. Instead, she used her closing remarks to remind lawmakers that “family is the heart of Montana” and to urge them to “remember our children” in the policy-crafting months to come. Arntzen’s office did not reply to a follow-up email asking about her stance on the policies mentioned by Espinoza and others.
Arntzen’s involvement in bringing the speakers together did not sit well with a group of citizens who watched the proceedings. Most were there to attend a progressive policy rally dubbed Occupy MT Legislature. Shani Henry of Helena told Montana Free Press that she viewed the Rotunda event as a “circus” and a “declaration of war on public education.” Clutching a sign that read “Elsie – You are a public employee,” Henry said she was offended that Arntzen, in her capacity as state superintendent, would host a forum advancing such beliefs.
“This is not what I signed up for,” Henry said. “This is not what I pay taxes for.”