In their first public campaign appearance together, Gov. Steve Bullock and candidate for superintendent of public instruction Melissa Romano painted themselves as friends of all students and their opponents as favoring only a fraction.
Bullock, a Democrat, is running to retain his seat against GOP challenger Greg Gianforte. Romano, a fellow Democrat, is a Helena teacher facing off against state Sen. Elsie Arntzen, R-Billings.
Bullock and Romano paired up in Missoula's Bess Reed Park on Thursday afternoon, surrounded by a group of about 25 supporters and teachers. One of those was MEA-MFT president Eric Feaver, who said while Romano faces a couple of uphill battles – relatively unknown in the political sphere and a Democrat in a largely Republican state – "she stands for public schools."
The stop was part of Bullock's "Innovate and Educate" tour this week. They were in Great Falls on Wednesday, and will hold a rally at 11:30 a.m. Friday at Lazy Green Park in Helena.
"With how out of step Greg Gianforte is, it's no surprise he decided to hitch his wagon to my opponent," Romano said.
Romano's agenda is threefold: supporting school infrastructure, funding public preschool and "fighting for every single Montana child, from children with special needs to our highest achieving students."
She spoke generally of the positive economic impact of quality school facilities, and the importance of funding early childhood education, specifically through Bullock's $37 million Early Edge preschool proposal.
"We have seen record graduation rates and if we want to see those graduation rates continue to increase, we must invest in our earliest learners and provide public preschool," she said. "As a former kindergarten teacher myself, I have seen firsthand the positive impacts of public preschool and how that's best for our kids."
Romano said Arntzen and Gianforte are "completely out of touch" when it comes to education – pointing to Arntzen's voting record.
In the 2015 legislative session, Romano argued that Arntzen voted against Early Edge.
"How can we go ahead and put a new cohort of students in, young ones, if we don't have healthy buildings?" Arntzen said, noting that school buildings need to be taken care of first. "There needs to be local control, for sure, and also local responsibility. And I believe the state has a responsibility in this."
Arntzen voted for a bill – eventually vetoed by Bullock – that would have created a publicly-funded "education savings account" to be used so the family of a child with disabilities could seek an alternative education.
Opponents saw it as diverting public dollars to pay for private programs.
Gianforte and Arntzen announced a four-pronged effort to expand computer science education in May. Since then, he has spoken generally about education, but has not put forth other formal education policy proposals.
The initiative would expand computer science curriculum to every Montana high school, make computer science qualify as a core science course to meet graduation requirements, push state colleges to offer computer science teaching certificates to train more instructors, and make coding classes fulfill foreign language requirements.
Montana has no foreign language graduation requirements.
"Greg announced his main education proposals back in May with a focus on working to get computer science in every high school, putting a renewed emphasis on trades education, supporting local control of schools with more parental say, and working to reconnect education with job outcomes," Ron Catlett, Gianforte's press secretary, said in a statement. "Greg believes that the goal of education should be to help every child reach their full potential."
Arntzen wants to see changes in several areas. She would like a concerted effort focusing on the middle school population, specifically in mental health and academic counseling.
"If we focus our energies on middle school, that will lead to a larger trajectory of success when they leave public schools and are looking at the next step," she said.
That's going to force improvements of recruitment and retention, she said, particularly in rural Montana. The funding formula needs to be reviewed and looked at in "non-traditional" ways, she said, and that includes how special education is funded – from special needs to gifted and talented.
Bullock said Thursday that Gianforte supports private schools to the detriment of public education.
Bullock said he doesn't want Montana to become the next Kansas, where income tax cuts last year led to budget deficits that forced some schools to close early.
"Don't kid yourself, our education system would look fundamentally different if we don't make sure that I get re-elected and Melissa Romano gets elected to the superintendent of public instruction," Bullock said.
Bullock's Early Edge initiative is returning in the upcoming legislative session — his second go at the $37 million proposal to fund public preschool.
Montana is one of eight states that doesn't fund preschool. Early Edge is proposed as a voluntary program for school districts, who would apply for a grant to fund or expand a preschool program.
In 2015, Early Edge didn't make it through, which Bullock said was "certainly frustrating."
"I hope it's not because of politics," he said. "I hope it was more of not understanding."
It's common that first-time efforts don't succeed, Bullock said. But this is something that can't wait decade. Early Edge is proposed to be funded by the state's general fund.
"How you do it is you make it one of your priorities," he said. "A budget is a reflection of the priorities we as a state have."
Bullock said that doesn't mean cuts to other programs.
"It's not getting rid of 'X' to do this," he said.
His budget proposal won't be ready until mid-November, he said, and efforts such as Early Edge "are still being fleshed out."