In the 1980s, the wealth gap between rich and poor public schools in Montana had become a chasm. The small town of Troy – situated amid untaxable national forest land – could barely get its relatively few property tax payers to pony up enough to keep the lights on. In Colstrip, meanwhile, with its immense taxable coal mines and power plants, schools could levy very little in the way of property tax and still afford the latest and best in educational resources – up to and including a heated swimming pool.

Advocates decried these disparities as unfair – and unconstitutional – and pleaded with state lawmakers to do something about it. But they sat idly by and did nothing – that is until the state Supreme Court stepped in. Advocates for poorer schools sued the state, and the high court essentially forced legislators to act and act quickly. What resulted were sweeping changes in the way education dollars were collected, distributed and spent.

Today’s lawmakers are equally remiss as they sit and watch the crisis deepen in the state’s foster care system.

A Chronicle report published June 24 found that in the two years since it was declared in “crisis” by a commission named to examine the issue, the number of Montana children in foster care has increased to nearly 4,000 – nearly triple the number 10 years ago. Much of the increase has been blamed on parents’ drug addiction, which leads to child neglect and abuse.

The commission recommended changes to the system. Some have been made and have helped alleviate some problems. But the increase in children entering the system are stretching resources far too thin. Rather than getting more resources to deal with the burgeoning problem, though, the Legislature has cut $50 million from the state health department budget. That includes $3.6 million taken from the Child and Family Services Division in last year’s special legislative session alone.

Too few child protection specialists dealing with too many children in the system mean that some cases of abuse and neglect are not addressed, seriously endangering the physical and emotional welfare of children in those cases.

Legislators’ zeal to shrink the size of government has been applied indiscriminately, cutting services that are essential and must be funded adequately or the consequences will be dire.

And, if asked, the courts may take a dim view of all this.

Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

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