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Stand Up For Education rallies rock the state!

Missoula rally report

Rally helper Bill Howell reports: About seven hundred people, including school employees, parents, students K-12 through grad school, school board members, superintendents, AAUW, PTA members, and union folks packed the Copper Commons. Area legislators were there to hear what the people they represent had to say.

Participants came from Missoula, Bonner, St. Ignatius, Ronan, Clinton, Lone Rock, Stevensville, Victor, Corvallis, Target Range, Lolo, Florence, DeSmet, and Frenchtown.

A big hit was a large map with legislative districts. The League of Women Voters supplied handouts with names and addresses of local area legislators.

The Missoulian , local radio, and TV stations had coverage leading up to the rally. The rally was the lead story on both NBC and CBS local affiliates Saturday afternoon and night.

“Hundreds decry education cuts”
By BETSY COHEN of the Missoulian, March 2, 2003

Speakers warn of dire consequences for state

It was billed as a rally for education, but by the time the event at the University of Montana was over, it could have been called an education revival.

On Saturday, hundreds of people of all ages filled the University Center's Copper Commons, and hundreds more filled like venues across the state to urge Montana legislators to increase funding for K-12 schools and state universities.

UM history professor Harry Fritz opened the hour long event with humor and a well-aimed poke at Helena officials who discouraged the Stand Up For Education organizers from gathering at the state Capitol, as they did two years ago.

Their last rally, Fritz told the crowd, attracted a crowd of thousands, which state officials later deemed "too big, too noisy and too intimidating."

"They won't let us meet in Helena for safety reasons," Fritz said. "They must think we are terrorists - and I say we are. We are education terrorists and if we strike terror in their hearts, that's fine by me."

Boisterous laughs and hearty applause rolled through the room, and audience members held signs high in the air, among them: "Fund our education," and "Carpenters Union Local No. 28 Supports Education."

Fritz welcomed the handful of area legislators - all Democrats - in attendance: Holly Raser, Ron Erickson, Tom Facey, Nancy Fritz, Rosie Buzzas, and Vicki Cocchiarella.

He then advocated using the word "investment" as a good description of how state lawmakers should view funding education.

"It's the 'perk-up' theory," Fritz said, "not the 'trickle-down' theory."

"You invest in kids at all levels and create a better, more prosperous society," he said.

By not investing in education, Montana will continue to atrophy on all social and economic levels, said Paul Haber, a UM professor and education lobbyist.

As it stands now, for every 10 teachers that are trained at Montana universities, more than seven leave the state looking for higher-paying jobs.

Montana is currently ranked 47th in the nation for wages it pays teachers. If tuition continues to climb and academic programs are gutted because of the lack of state funding, universities will soon be a place only for students from wealthy families; the economy will suffer because new business will not be able to rely on an educated worker pool; and the state will not flourish, Haber said.

It is unthinkable, he said, that in today's era legislators are making decisions to price average Montanans out of public higher education.

"A college diploma is what a high school diploma used to be," Haber said. Students need one just to be able to walk through the door of most businesses in order to fill out an employment application.

Dick King, director of the Missoula Area Economic Development Corp., echoed the sentiment, and recited the words of Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania: "The state with the most education wins."

UM student Ryan Stavnes voiced his outrage that tuition has increased and will likely spike again.

His anger, he said, comes from knowing there are solutions out there and they aren't being implemented.

His answer would be to raise tourist and luxury taxes, pointing out that Montana currently collects $34 in taxes per week from the average tourist while Wyoming pulls in $122 and Utah, $239.

Diane Beck, a Missoula real estate agent and school board member, urged everyone to call the governor and ask for more funding. She urged people to encourage their neighbors to do so, too. Write letters, send e-mails - lots of them - and deluge legislators and state officials with the message to invest in education, she said.

"Your words make a difference," Beck said.

The crowd came to its feet when former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, D-Montana, took his turn at the microphone.

Wasn't it a pity, he pointed out, that on such a sunny winter day thousands of people across the state were meeting to petition the Legislature "to do what it ought to have been doing anyway."

Williams attacked Gov. Judy Martz's proposal to cut $30 million from the K-12 budget, noting its effect on upcoming pupils.

Williams said the state has 10,000 future students under the age of 1 that will eventually have to be educated. He noted that as soon as the Republicans got to Helena, they reduced the governor's budget cuts an additional $24 million. Two weeks later, they put the money back in and claimed it was an increase in education funding.

"I've seen some legislative fiscal scams," he said, "but this takes the record."

He then turned his comments to the Legislature and its leaders, many of whom are veteran legislators.

"A decade is enough time to get it right," Williams said. "We in this state have had 10 solid years of frustrating mistakes and failures (while Republicans have been in charge).

"It's time we apply the rule of students at this university and at other universities: If you give us failing grades year after year, you go home."

When he pointed out that Martz was widely quoted in Saturday's newspapers as saying she'd veto any bill to increase higher education through tax increases, the crowed erupted in bellowing "boos."

"It's the wrong time politically and policy-wise to throw down that gauntlet," Williams said, adding that it's "entirely inappropriate and damn bullheaded."

"Our governor and our legislators," he said, "ought to do what is right - stand up for education - or stand down."

The gathering concluded when 11-year-old Olivia Haber-Greenwood thanked everyone for attending the event.

"Thank you for caring about my education," said the poised C.S. Porter student. "Thank you for standing up for me and thousands of kids across Montana."

Stand Up For Education
1232 E. Sixth Avenue
Helena, Montana 59601
(406) 442-4250