Montana’s Senator Jon Tester Says Democrats Can Win in Red States By Prioritizing Public Education

In mid-December, the NY TimesJonathan Martin interviewed Montana Senator Jon Tester about his new book, Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America. Tester, a Democrat and U.S. Senator in his third term, represents a deep red state.

Tester tells Martin: “Democrats can really do some positive things in rural America just by talking about infrastructure and what they’re doing for infrastructure, particularly in the area of broadband. And then I would say one other policy issue is how some Republicans want to basically privatize public education. That is very dangerous, and I think it’s a point that people don’t want to see their public schools close down in Montana.”

Although I now live in an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up in in Havre, Montana, 35 miles up the road from Tester’s farm just outside of Big Sandy.  As I read that NY Times interview, I was particularly interested in Tester’s statement about the threat school privatization poses in rural communities, which is why I was surprised and delighted to find a copy of Tester’s book wrapped up for me under the Christmas tree.

Many hope President Joe Biden’s administration will significantly reshape federal education policy. During last year’s campaign for President, Biden, the candidate, declared a public education agenda that contrasts sharply with what happened to federal policy in public education beginning in the 1990s and culminating in the 2002 No Child Left Behind and later in 2009 in Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top.  Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire describe the past couple of decades: “Together, led by federal policy elites, Republicans and Democrats espoused the logic of markets in the public sphere, expanding school choice through publicly funded charter schools. Competition, both sides agreed, would strengthen schools.  And the introduction of charters, this contingent believed, would empower parents as consumers….”

Now with Biden’s election, many are looking for a turn by prominent Democrats back to the urgent needs of the public schools as a new COVID-19 recession compounds funding problems lingering in state budgets from the Great Recession a dozen years ago and as school privatization through charter school expansion and vouchers continues to thrust public schools deeper into fiscal crisis. Senator Jon Tester believes Democrats can rebuild support in rural America by attending to the needs of rural public education.

Tester’s new book folds policy ideas into memoir, with the back story a tribute to small town public schooling.  An indifferent high school student, Tester was encouraged by a debate coach, “who taught me how to articulate political arguments” and “taught us how to structure speeches to build an arc of suspense. He taught us the importance of clarity and simple language.”  Tester was elected student body president at Big Sandy High School: “For Government Day, on behalf of Big Sandy’s students, I invited one of our area’s most familiar elected leaders to visit with us about his long career in public service… Senator James was a tall, soft-spoken old farmer who accepted my invitation graciously and visited with us Big Sandy students for the better part of a day. He made the art and war of state politics sound fun.”

A trumpet player and college music major, Tester taught elementary school music at F.E. Miley Elementary School but was forced to resign when the paltry salary, even on top of what he could earn from farming, made it impossible for his family to get by. Tester ran for the local board of education and served for nearly a decade, including stints as vice chair and chair: “To this day, I’m asked about my most difficult job in politics. Without a doubt, my answer is the nine years I spent on the Big Sandy school board; it seemed everyone had strong opinions about public school policies, disciplinary actions, money, pay, taxes, ethics, graduations, grades, teacher performance, coaches, bullies, scholarships—it was a nine-year roller-coaster ride, and I loved every twist and turn.”

Tester ran for the Montana state senate, serving eventually as Senate President in the years when the state legislature enacted school funding reform: “Though we had already tackled school funding earlier in the year to satisfy the 2004 mandate from the Montana Supreme Court, the legislature still needed to pass a more permanent funding plan.  And with power and speed, we did. In only two days, with a clear vision and a smart, organized plan, the Democratic-controlled Montana Legislature passed a much-needed 10.6 percent increase in public education funding, over the loud objections of the Republicans.”

How did these years of experience prepare Tester to confront public education policy in the U.S. Senate?

Here is Tester describing his personal interview with Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos:  “DeVos said it (public education) was failing, and that her solution would be to pull successful kids out of failing public schools and give them vouchers to attend private schools.” Later opposing her appointment, Tester told the Senate: “‘If we …(privatize the schools)  I am here to tell the people of the Senate today that we will destroy the foundation of this country and we will destroy—it will take a few years—we will destroy our democracy.’… I told my Senate colleagues how my Swedish-born grandmother Christine Pearson made sure her four kids understood the transformative value of public education, and how my mother, also a former teacher, passed that value down to me. I said I had to quit teaching in the late seventies because I could make more money on one Saturday butchering meat than an entire week of teaching music at my tiny hometown elementary school.”

What about charter schools? “I am going to tell you what happens in a rural state like mine with privatization.  My school system in my hometown of Big Sandy has about 175 kids. That is not an exception for Montana; there are a lot of schools that have 175 kids or fewer. By the way, that is not high school; that’s K through twelve. Let’s say that for whatever reason, somebody wants to set up a charter school a few miles down the road and suck a few kids out of Big Sandy, and maybe suck a few kids out of the Fort Benton school system, and a few more out of the Chester system.  Pretty soon, they have their little charter school, and there is less money to teach the kids who are left in those public schools. What do you think is going to happen to those kids who are left there? That is going to take away from our public education system. Ultimately it will cause those schools to close, because the money that funds our education is at a bare minimum right now.”

What about the racial and ethnic intolerance fanned for four years by President Trump? Tester believes that public schools are a setting for confronting intolerance: “Rural America often refuses to examine the impacts of racism and the privilege that people like my homesteader grandparents benefited from while the first Americans here were pushed away. Montana’s (1972) Constitution mandates a program called Indian Education for All to ensure that all public school kids learn the accurate history of indigenous people. But we’ve got a hell of a lot more work to do to better understand one another, so that all communities can prosper without having to fear other communities, without having to push them down…  Without our nation having built a foundation of respect and understanding through education, a populist like Donald Trump can easily convince rural America that the status quo in politics isn’t working, and others are to blame….”

Tester—a  Democrat who supports the Affordable Care Act, gay rights, and the Manchin-Toomey gun background check amendment; who opposes Citizens United and opposed the 2017 tax cuts for the rich; and who killed President Trump’s appointment of Dr. Ronny Jackson as Director of Veterans Affairs— is serving a third term as a U.S. Senator representing deep red Montana.

Character and authenticity are Tester’s code. But there are also the core issues: “I’ve won each of my elections because I gave voters a reason. Good public education. Quality, affordable health care. Accountability. Freedom. Montana’s way of life. Those are things that everyone can relate to, regardless of political party.”  He adds: “Democrats need to understand that we cannot give up on rural America… (W)e have no choice but to reach out and bring all of America along.”