Montana’s flagging natural resource industries have gotten a shot in the arm from the wholesale mining of coal and drilling for oil. But even with that boost, it could be said that – for most Montanans – the state’s natural-resource-based economy is a thing of the past.
What is taking its place? Tourism and high-tech industries are steadily expanding and providing jobs for Montanans. But the best jobs will go to those with the right kind of education.
As legislators gather in Helena next week to draw a road map for the state for the next two years, education should be front and center in their thoughts and policy considerations. The flagging economy has increased higher education demand. Both Montanans and out-of-staters are flocking to campuses to improve their job prospects. That’s particularly evident at Montana State University, which has set enrollment records over the last few years and is struggling to meet the demand with instructors and classroom and dorm space.
But just as pivotal to the state’s economic future is public elementary and high school education.
In Montana’s divided government, almost any proposals to deal with education funding seem destined to spark a fight. But there are promising signs. While most Republicans are voicing their long-standing resistance to increasing education funding, a Republican senator from Conrad, Llew Jones, has unveiled an ambitious plan to overhaul school funding, using the state’s windfall in oil, gas and coal tax revenues to offset property tax payments and give schools a funding boost in the process. The plan has met cautious optimism from some education groups.
And there is a proposal to boost funding for the University System in exchange for a tuition freeze.
Montana has a history of being bled dry of natural resources that are shipped out of state to be processed or consumed elsewhere. It has also been plagued by a “brain drain” as Montana kids leave the state in search of more promising job prospects.
The former is playing a shrinking role in future career plans for most Montanans. And the latter can be stopped by preparing our kids for college and the kinds of high-tech jobs and entrepreneurial enterprises that will shape the state’s economic future.
These are issues that should be top priorities for our state lawmakers.