Steve Bullock and Greg Gianforte

A lot could be at stake for Montana school kids and teachers, college students and university employees in this year’s race for governor.

Both major party candidates, incumbent Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican challenger Greg Gianforte, speak passionately about education. Both have taken concrete actions to promote education and praised Montana’s public schools.

Yet they have very different visions and priorities for education.

“I continue to firmly believe that our public education system is the great equalizer,” Bullock said in Bozeman on the first day of school, using a phrase he has often repeated. “Anyone who says public schools have failed isn’t seeing what’s happening.”

Gianforte, 56, a Bozeman entrepreneur, says in Montana, “We have great schools, and even greater teachers. But we can and must do more.”

Bullock, 50, has been a strong supporter of public schools and the University System’s priorities in his first term. He counts among his accomplishments “record investments in public education” and “record results,” such as an all-time high 86 percent high school graduation rate.

For Montana college students, Bullock has supported tuition freezes for the past four years, made possible by a three-way deal with lawmakers and the Board of Regents. The governor also supported the first $15 million state investment for scientific research, which the 2015 Legislature passed and from which Montana State University scientists won $9 million in competitive grants.

Gianforte sold his software start-up RightNow Technologies in 2011 to high-tech giant Oracle for $1.5 billion. He is board chairman and major funder of a private school, Petra Academy in Bozeman, which provides a Christian and classical education.

A supporter of school choice, Gianforte and his family foundation donated nearly $5 million to create ACE Scholarships Montana, which have helped 750 low- and middle-income students attend private schools when public schools weren’t working for them.

“In education, as in business, one size does not fit all,” Gianforte said in announcing the ACE donation. “Competition improves everybody’s performance.”

Gianforte has also been generous to Bozeman’s public university. His family foundation recently pledged $8 million to Montana State University, which renamed its computer science department the Gianforte School of Computing and will name a new auditorium in his honor. That pledge comes on top of nearly $2 million the Gianfortes have given over the years to MSU’s computer science department. He received an honorary doctorate from MSU in 2007.

“A strong education system is vital to Montana’s economic future.” Gianforte says on his campaign website. “Let’s create more high wage jobs so our kids don’t continue to be our most precious export.”

Scary choice, painful choice

“Scary” is the word Eric Feaver uses for Gianforte. Feaver is president of Montana’s biggest union, the MEA-MFT, representing 18,000 teachers and other public employees. MEA has endorsed Bullock.

“Painful” is how state Sen. Kris Hansen feels about a Bullock re-election. Hansen, a Republican from Havre, is a Senate Education committee member and former chair of the House Education Committee.

Feaver said he feels Gianforte is scary because the Republican is a “millionaire entrepreneur and theocrat” who “believes our ancestors hunted dinosaurs” and intends to privatize public education and attack public employee unions with right-to-work laws.

“I think if (Gianforte) is elected we would see a frontal assault on public employee unions, we’d see voucher and charter bills, and an assault on teacher retirement — he said Noah didn’t retire, work until you die,” Feaver said.

Asked about a right-to-work agenda, Gianforte said, “It’s not on my top 10 list of opportunities to improve education” — repeating a response that critics contend is sidestepping. If elected, Gianforte said, he would judge proposals by the yardstick: “Does a proposed policy help more children reach their full potential.”

Feaver’s dinosaur reference relates to Gianforte’s donations to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum. The museum rejects science’s theory of evolution and estimate of a 4.5 billion-year-old Earth, presenting instead the Bible-based view that the Earth was created in six days, is 6,000 years old, and that dinosaurs rode on the Ark with animals and people.

On the other side, Hansen argues that re-electing Bullock would be painful for education, “because it keeps us stuck in the status quo another four years,” she said.

“The governor refuses to recognize we are in an era with access to more and higher-quality platforms of education services than ever in world history. All he ever wants to talk about is the traditional model,” she said. “It rejects the basic fact that students learn differently and huge numbers don’t do well.

“All we ever hear out of Mr. Feaver and the governor is that schools are doing just fine. Our public schools do extremely well for a lot of students — I commend them,” Hansen said. “For the majority they do a fine job. But the establishment will not recognize that we have lots of students who do not do well.”

About 15 percent do not graduate statewide, she pointed out, and it’s worse on Indian reservations — where about 35 percent don’t graduate.

“Under a Greg Gianforte administration,” she said, “we could consider new ways to meet the needs of those kids.”

Public schools’ advocate

On the first day of school, Gov. Bullock visited Bozeman High School to see the Bridger alternative program, a charter program within the high school, as part of his back-to-school tour to highlight the idea that public schools are innovating.

While he welcomed the Bozeman charter program that’s still under the control of the public school system, the governor rejected the idea that Montana should do what most other states have done — allow public tax-funded charter schools that operate like private schools, independent of school boards, state regulations and often without teachers’ unions.

“Once you start privatizing,” Bullock said, it ends up diverting resources and money from public schools. Charter schools in other states, especially those run by for-profit companies, have had “mixed results,” he said, and they lack accountability to elected school boards, to state education standards and to taxpayers.

Bullock has strong ties to Montana public schools. His mother, Penny, served as a Helena school trustee; his father, Mike, was a teacher and administrator; and his stepdad, Jack Copps, is Helena’s interim school superintendent. Bullock talked with Bozeman students about running track at Helena High and his three children attending public schools.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Claremont McKenna College in California and law degree from Columbia Law School in New York.

Bullock told Bridger students that he wasn’t a great high school student and couldn’t wait to get out.

“I later realized any success I’ve had is because of high school,” he said. “Teachers helped me get motivated.”

Bullock’s office listed several educational accomplishments of his first four years:

Montana has doubled the number of high school students taking dual enrollment classes, which give both high school and college credit. Thousands more students are connected to high-speed broadband internet access in classrooms.

And 5,000 more 4-year-olds have started taking pre-kindergarten classes, despite the 2015 Legislature’s rejection of his Early Edge program that sought to make pre-K classes available to all 4-year-olds on a voluntary basis. That’s an idea Bullock, if re-elected, wants to push at the next Legislature.

Hansen said she feels the governor often takes too much credit for accomplishments that wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Republican Legislature.

Guns and computers

Bullock’s vetoes blocked several bills passed by the Republican Legislature that were opposed by the University System and public schools.

The governor vetoed a bill to allow guns on Montana college campuses in 2013. In 2015 he vetoed a concealed carry bill that would have allowed almost any Montana adult to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.

“While I will fiercely defend the Second Amendment rights of citizens,” Bullock said then, “I cannot support an absurd concept that threatens the safety of our communities by not providing for the basic fundamentals of gun safety or mental health screening.”

Gianforte takes a different stand. He told the Chronicle in May, “I believe the Second Amendment is very clear. (The right to bear arms) Shall not be infringed. That’s what I believe.”

Asked about college campuses, Gianforte replied, “I think when you remove guns from an environment you create victim zones.”

Bullock also vetoed last session HB322, which would have let parents use tax dollars to set up education savings accounts for special-needs children and their siblings. His veto message said it would have covered too broad a range of students, including those with only minor or temporary problems, and it would divert public funds to religious private education, not allowed by the state constitution.

“Our public resources should be used to support our outstanding public schools, which are open to all students, with any kind of need,” Bullock wrote. He said he respects the families of 10,000 Montana students in private or home schools. “I will not, however, support legislation that subsidizes that choice with public resources.”

Gianforte has supported the idea of school choice and been a major proponent of getting more Montana students to learn computer skills, to boost both their own job prospects and the state’s economy.

“I feel computers are here to stay,” Gianforte said. “If we don’t teach our young people how to author technology, they’re not going to be in control of their future.”

Montana universities graduated only 40 computer science students in 2013, and they need to train more for state’s growing high-tech industry, he says on his website.

To do something about that, Gianforte made the $8 million gift to MSU’s computer science program and also cofounded CodeMontana. The nonprofit has made computer science curriculum available to Montana middle school and high school students, reaching 1,200 the first year. It also offers $4,000 scholarships to students going into computer science and software engineering.

Gianforte has also supported robot presentations to get middle and high school students excited about technology, and training more teachers to teach The Joy and Beauty of Computing classes, like one piloted at Bozeman High.

Gianforte attended public high school in Pennsylvania and graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. His four children attended Petra Academy.

While campaigning around the state, Gianforte said he has visited rural schools that have 44 students and 15 full-time staff members.

 “I’m a fan of stronger public schools,” he said, adding, “In larger communities like Bozeman, giving parents choices can improve outcomes.”

Four priorities

Gianforte lists his four education priorities as:

—Getting computer science in every high school. He’d also like to make computer programing language an alternative to foreign language credit.

—Expanding trades education, to train students for good-paying jobs as carpenters, plumbers, electricians, welders, cooks and machinists. Gianforte Manufacturing Scholarships have helped 300 veterans and lower-income students earn certificates in welding and machining at Montana’s two-year colleges.

—Strong public schools, with local control and “more parental say.” Gianforte sees too many mandates from Washington and Helena, too much bureaucratic overhead. He also calls for expanding the Montana Digital Academy’s online classes to offer rural high school students more dual enrollment and Advanced Placement classes for college credit.

—Connecting education and jobs. Gianforte calls for creating a website to show students who are choosing job training classes or college majors how much each one pays in average salaries.

Bullock also has four major education priorities:

—Infrastructure: The governor says his No. 1 priority is investing $200 million in cash and borrowed money in fixing infrastructure around the state, including public schools. The money would pay for new heating and ventilation systems, replacing old lights, asbestos abatement and replacing old boilers — things that many schools need but can’t afford.

—Expanding dual enrollment. It has grown from 2,500 to 4,100 high school students, saving families $4 million in college tuition, and Bullock wants it to grow by another 1,000 students. Students who take dual enrollment classes are far more likely to go to college in Montana, and more likely to stay in college.

—Expand pre-school classes for 4-year-olds. It increases children’s chances of success in school and in life, Bullock argues.

—Expand schools’ broadband access to high-speed internet. Bullock is calling for $1 million to match federal funds for expanding access to fiber and faster connections.

The Montana Board of Regents voted to make their No. 1 building priority in the 2017 Legislature renovating Romney Hall, estimated to cost $28 million. It failed to pass in the last Legislature, despite support from Bullock. The governor’s office couldn’t say whether Romney would be one of its infrastructure priorities in the 2017 Legislature.

Gianforte said, “I’m not opposed to Romney Hall,” but “we have a lot of infrastructure needs.” He blamed Bullock for vetoing Republican infrastructure bills in 2013 and 2015 and for dropping state revenues this year.

“I would place roads, bridges, sewers and water systems that are starting to fail at a higher priority," Gianforte said.

The two candidates seem noncommittal on an issue that concerns Montana’s college students — providing enough state dollars to higher education to continue the tuition freeze for another two years.

Bullock said in Bozeman that he’s pleased that in recent years, Montana is one of only four states that have actually increased their investments in higher education — at a time when most states have been cutting, “balancing the budget on the backs of higher ed.” But he wouldn’t commit to more tuition freezes, saying, “we’ll be working with” higher education and legislative officials.

Gianforte’s campaign said it’s important to “come up with methods of keeping tuition costs down. Unfortunately, thanks to career politician Steve Bullock’s failed leadership, revenues are down sharply.… The next governor and Legislature will face some tough decisions.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.