HELENA – Speaking to the Democratic National Convention, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau on Wednesday night praised President Barack Obama for making historic investments in higher education and making college more affordable.
“As Democrats, we believe that every child, regardless of background or ability, is entitled to an excellent education,” Juneau said in remarks prepared for delivery. “Our determination to strengthen our schools to provide a 21st century education for every child drives us to work to reelect President Barack Obama.
“President Obama knows that education is the best investment an individual can make in themselves, that a family can make in its children, that a nation can make in its people.”
Juneau told the crowd at the convention in Charlotte, N.C., that she was proud to be there as a Montanan, as an educator, as a Democrat, as a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes and as the first Native American woman to win a statewide election in U.S. history.
Her parents, Stan and former state Sen. Carol Juneau, now of Great Falls, told her that education was the path to success, she said, and they showed her by taking her to Head Start while they were pursuing college degrees. Both Denise and Carol Juneau are delegates to the convention.
Juneau, raised in Browning on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, received a degree in English from Montana State University, earned a master’s in education from Harvard University and graduated from the University of Montana School of Law.
“President Obama knows that that the value of education is not just in the equations our students memorize or the books they read,” she said. “For some students, school is the only place where they get a hot meal and a warm hug. Teachers are sometimes the only ones who tell our children they can go from an Indian reservation to the Ivy League, from the home of a struggling single mom to the White House.”
Juneau was elected state superintendent of public instruction in 2008 and is seeking re-election this year.
“Teachers do the noble work of educating our children,” Juneau said. “And we can’t thank them enough for the hard work they put in every day to ensure a bright future for all of us.”
It is in schools where “we pass down our stories and our history,” Juneau said. “And in my family, that American history goes back centuries – back to the first residents: Native Americans.”
She said Obama understands that the Native American story includes “both painful chapters and hopeful ones” and “knows it is part of America’s story and that we deserve to be part of the American dream.”
“That is why he welcomed the tribal nations to the White House and joined them at the table,” Juneau said. “He signed the Cobell settlement to correct a long-standing injustice that Elouise Cobell, a warrior woman, fought for 15 long years.”
She was referring to the class action lawsuit Cobell filed against two federal departments on behalf of Native Americans contending they had incorrectly accounted for income from Indian trust assets. A $3.4 billion settlement was reached.
Obama also has made investments to prevent violence against women in Native communities and to increase opportunities for Native youth and veterans, Juneau said.
“And when he brought health care to all Americans, he helped build hospitals, train nurses and ensure healthy moms and healthy babies in tribal communities,” Juneau said.
She said it was a proud day in Montana when Obama visited the Crow Nation and became an adopted Crow tribal member. He was given a Crow name, “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land.”
“That is more than an adopted name,” Juneau said. “That is at the core of who he is. It is his mission. And that is why, this November, we will re-elect President Barack Obama.”
In response to Juneau’s speech, her Republican opponent, Sandy Welch of Martin City, said, “For over two decades the Office of Public Instruction has been controlled by Democrats. Education can no longer be a political issue. It is time that education become a Montana issue.”
Welch quoted former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying that “lax standards and false praise” can no longer be accepted in our education system.
“I agree with Dr. Rice, and I don’t believe our teachers or students need lax standards or false praise to reach their potential,” Welch said. “They need a superintendent that believes in their ability to succeed and one that will be their mentor and resource in succeeding.”