Politicians, and their critics, get tough grades


David Crisp

My insect antennae went up as soon as I saw the grade on the political mailer: F.

I give out a lot of B’s and C’s, and the occasional D, but not many F’s. They are usually reserved for students who don’t show up to class, don’t do the work or steal the work of others.

So what crimes had Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings, committed to deserve a grade of F from Americans for Prosperity, the Bozeman-based arm of the political action group funded by the Koch brothers?

AFP flunked McCarthy on three issues: He voted for Obamacare expansion, against income tax reform and against school choice. Well, at least McCarthy voted. That’s worth a D in my class.

But how fair was AFP’s characterization of McCarthy’s votes? Actually, pretty fair. But as usual, more lies behind the case.

According to the AFP website, McCarthy’s score of zero was based on opposing AFP’s position on nine out of nine scored votes. Robyn Driscoll, the senator for the district in which I live, also got a zero score, but she is dropping out of the race to become a Yellowstone County commissioner.

After examining all nine votes, I would give AFP about a C. Not bad, but short on rigor. Some of the scored bills had nothing to do with the three issues AFP flunked McCarthy on. Others don’t exactly match relevant bills that actually passed.

McCarthy certainly did vote to expand Medicaid under provisions of Obamacare, as did 12 House Republicans in a bipartisan compromise that gave insurance coverage to some 70,000 Montanans.

On tax reform, McCarthy voted against House Bill 166, which passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock, who said it would disproportionately cut taxes for the top 10 percent of income earners while costing the state $160 million in revenues over four years.

In addition, McCarthy voted against two other tax reform bills unscored by AFP and vetoed by the governor: Senate Bill 171 and SB 200.

The merits of those bills obviously are open to debate, but McCarthy’s three-for-three vote against tax reform justifies AFP’s characterization.

Things get more complicated when it comes to school choice legislation. First, the term itself is a gross misnomer. No one seriously disputes that parents can choose to home school their kids or send them to private schools. The question is who pays for it.

Pro-choice Republicans (a highly enjoyable phrase to write) argue for a variety of tax breaks for parents who don’t send their kids to public schools. But this quickly gets messy. If public schools are paid for only by the people who send their kids there, then they aren’t really public at all. They are private schools charging tuition.

The argument for making everybody pay for public schools, whether they have kids or not, is powerful. Even childless people need schools training people to become future doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants. Besides, taking students out of public schools doesn’t make the expense of operating those schools go away.

If illness or a job layoff puts tuition out of reach, the student who is in private school this year may wind up in a public school next year. And even if that doesn’t happen, that public school has to be open, with lights on and heat running, just in case it does.

That is a particularly urgent consideration with charter schools, which failed to win legislative approval in 2015 for the second straight session. AFP downgraded McCarthy for voting against HB 596, which a legal review concluded would have created a separate system for chartered public schools outside the control of the State Board of Education, possibly violating the state constitution. The bill narrowly passed the House but died in the Senate.

Charter schools, which essentially are private, nonprofit schools that receive government funding, are available in 42 states and the District of Columbia. But not in Montana, which may be a wise thing.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University conducted a National Charter School Study in 2013 that found students in charter schools were improving reading scores faster than those in traditional public schools, and charter school students were holding their own in math.

But the study also noted that results varied widely from state to state, and that charter school scores were boosted in part because 193 charter schools had closed since they were included in a similar 2008 study—and many of those that closed were those with the worst results.

On his HBO TV show on Sunday, John Oliver had an admittedly one-sided report on the worst charter school problems. He cited a two-year-old Naples (Fla.)  Daily News report that 119 charter schools in Florida had closed since 2008, 14 of them in their first year of operation.

Other charter schools had closed within six months of opening, Oliver reported, and he cited reports of embezzling, indictments and padded attendance records. In Ohio, he said, charter school funds were misspent at a rate four times that of public schools.

So maybe McCarthy’s vote against charter schools wasn’t such a bad idea. Besides, as former School District 2 Superintendent James Kimmet once argued, if freeing schools from bureaucratic oversight is such a great idea, why not just do that with public schools?

McCarthy also voted against HB 433, which would have provided a tuition tax credit for kindergarten through 12th grade. Oddly, AFP did not score SB 410, the most significant school choice bill that actually passed, although without the governor’s signature.

SB 410 allows taxpayers a tax credit of $150 ($300 for couples) for donations to scholarships at either public or private schools. The Montana Department of Revenue ruled that the credit could not go to religiously affiliated schools, citing a provision in the state constitution that prohibits public appropriations for religious institutions.

But a district judge ruled against the DOR’s position in May, arguing that the Legislature clearly intended for the tax credit to apply to religious schools and citing other decisions holding that tax credits are not appropriations.

So how did McCarthy vote on SB 410? Eh, he was against it. Perhaps I have been too harsh on Americans for Prosperity. Let’s call it a B minus.

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