This fall's race for the state superintendent of public instruction seat will be a test to see if Montana's tradition of electing Democrats to the post will continue.
State Sen. Elsie Arntzen, R-Billings, and Melissa Romano, a Democrat from Helena, are vying for the state superintendent of public instruction job, a person who oversees public K-12 school districts and is a member of the state Land Board.
They’re both teachers – Arntzen for 23 years in Billings, Romano for 12 years in Helena. Arntzen, however, has spent the last 14 years in the Legislature.
“I think the dynamic in the race for superintendent is a little bit different than for any of the others, and that’s because it focuses so explicitly on education, obviously,” said University of Montana political scientist Rob Saldin. “Education is one area in which the American public for a long time and very consistently has demonstrated that they have more trust in Democrats.”
That’s certainly been the case more often than not in Montana. A Republican hasn’t held the superintendent of public instruction’s office since Ed Argenbright won in 1980 and 1984.
“It’s the one reason why I think the Democrats have a little bit of an advantage, kind of in the same way that in general, all things being equal, Republicans in Montana have an advantage running statewide,” Saldin said.
Historically, races for the top education seat have been close. Outgoing superintendent Denise Juneau, who’s battling Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke this fall, barely beat her superintendent opponent in 2012, by 2,231 votes.
Saldin said the presidential election’s impact on state and local races is "a huge wild card'' this year.
“You could see it going in either direction,'' he said. "Just what we saw (Monday) night at the (Republican National) Convention, it seems like more of the same: general chaos and unorthodoxy. There’s a lot of evidence already that this is appealing, (Donald) Trump is reaching out to new people and bringing new people into the fold. I could imagine it trickling down, but I could also see it totally imploding and hurting people down-ballot.”
Romano is not necessarily a shoo-in, Saldin said, and Romano herself agrees.
“This is a competitive race and I plan to work really hard,” she said, noting that she continues to meet with voters and raise more money than Arntzen.
As of June 26, the candidates’ campaign fundraising totals weren’t wildly different: Romano had nearly $72,000 in the bank and Arntzen had about $64,000.
The difference lies in how they were funded. Romano has been entirely supported by individual and committee contributions – about $101,000 since she filed.
Arntzen has received about $121,000 in contributions, $28,500 of which was was a loan to her own campaign.
Romano has three priorities: state K-12 funding, prekindergarten and preschool, and infrastructure. In the upcoming legislative session, she wants to see another inflationary increase “across the board” in state education funding. She wants to see the inflationary increase to K-12 funding continue, and she said Montana should also add per-student funding for 19-year-olds. Montana is one of two states that does not provide funding for students past the age of 18.
She threw her support behind Gov. Steve Bullock’s Early Edge initiative, which asked for $37 million to fund public preschool. Montana is one of eight states that does not pay for preschool.
“We have historic graduation rates right now, and I think if we want to see those continue to increase, we have to invest early and invest in our youngest learners,” Romano said.
In terms of infrastructure, she said she also supports Bullock’s Build Montana Trust Fund, proposed as an infrastructure funding source.
All of these efforts mean more money. Romano said it’s “like a little pool and a bunch of straws trying to pull from that.”
“To the people who say we can’t just keep throwing money at it, I say well, of course we can,” she said. “Our children are our future and they are our legacy. If we are going to have a stronger economy in the future, we have to invest in kids today.”
She did not go into specifics on how these programs would be funded, except to say that public preschool would be funded much as it would have if Early Edge had passed.
“It is not all about the money. It’s about less regulation,” Arntzen said.
At a roundtable in Missoula last week, Arntzen said some state rules tie the hands of local school boards.
On Tuesday, Arntzen elaborated, saying her No. 1 issue is “schools being burdened with data collection.”
“Data collection that is used in schools must benefit that student’s success and it needs to be in a timely manner,” she said. “From what I have found in my travels across the state, visiting with schools and their clerks especially, is there’s so much time taken for that.”
She tied the data collection issue to “test scores,” though she did not specifically reference the Common Core-tied Smarter Balanced assessment that suffered technical glitches in Montana last year.
“Being a classroom teacher for 23 years, I can tell you that if I get a test immediately, I can give feedback to that parent, student or myself or my colleagues across the hall from me, we can manipulate and have our method of how we flow education to kids a lot quicker and make it more adaptive,” she said.
Data collection is part of her overarching point that there are too many regulations and requirements of school districts.
“The only way innovation is going to occur is if we remove something from the plate and allow flexibility,” she said. “I believe right now they’re so tightly constrained with being so correct with everything, dotting our I’s and crossing our T’s, that teachers can’t teach. Creativity is taken out from everything, in how we deliver food in school buildings … to how we deliver education. If we open it up more, we have the ability for our public schools in Montana to be the shining stars that they should be.”
Romano disagreed with the idea that school districts need more local control.
“The fact is that our schools already have a lot of local control, from what textbooks they’re using to teacher pay to locker room policies,” she said.
Arntzen said with her understanding of Montana’s government and political framework, “I can de-politicize education, I can put believability back into it with parents and kids and the community.”
The MEA-MFT teachers' union, which represents 18,000 members statewide, including K-12 teachers and staff, endorsed Romano for superintendent, issuing a statement decrying Arntzen’s “deplorable” voting record.
Arntzen voted against Early Edge. She also was one of about 50 GOP state legislators who signed a letter last fall, calling on Montana's congressional delegation to turn down $40 million in Preschool Development Grant funding. The letter argued that the grants "come with a litany of federal requirements" and that the high-quality requirement is "insulting" to private providers.
"I have a real passion for putting forward early education services to kids," Arntzen said. "I haven’t shut the door on it completely."