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Gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte and Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate Elsie Arntzen unveiled a four-pronged education initiative on Tuesday that centered on expanding computer science classes to every Montana high school.

After touring Missoula classrooms that incorporate technology, the Republicans headed to Kalispell to announce their joint proposal at Depot Park. They suggested that computer science should qualify as a core science course toward meeting graduation requirements, that coding classes likewise should fulfill foreign language requirements and that state colleges should offer a computer science teaching certificate so that more instructors can be trained. They also suggested leveraging the existing Montana Digital Academy to bring courses to more schools.

Gianforte, an entrepreneur who became a millionaire after selling his Bozeman-based tech company to Oracle for $1.8 billion in 2011, called the initiative “common-sense policy changes that fit into the existing system.”

“I firmly believe that computers are here to stay, and we have to teach our young people not just how to use technology but how to author technology, because it’s the authoring that’s critically important so that they can be prepared for the jobs of the future,” he said at Hellgate Elementary in Missoula on Tuesday morning. “Computers are infiltrating every single industry, from agriculture to manufacturing, and we certainly have a burgeoning high-tech sector in the state.”

Arntzen is a state senator and elementary school teacher in Billings. She's running against Helena teacher and Democrat Melissa Romano for the Office of Public Instruction seat.

“As educators, it’s important for us to recognize that the needs of our students and teachers change as the economy and technology changes,” Arntzen said in a campaign statement. “The fact is that our students need computer skills if they are going to succeed in the 21st century economy. Computer science is now an important part of a well-rounded education.”

The announcement was not a surprise for those following Gianforte’s campaign. At events he often references his philanthropic work to improve computer science education, his leadership on the board of Bozeman’s private Christian Petra Academy or the success of RightNow, the technology company he founded with his wife.

Throughout his campaign, Gianforte has focused his education comments on giving students the skills they need to stay in Montana after graduation and to bring back those who have left. He has not yet announced any other formal education policy proposals nor provided detailed answers about how he might manage school funding and recruitment issues that have been the top focus of education advocacy groups during the legislative interim. Gianforte often notes that he is still seeking input from around the state and that he would work with legislators to find solutions if elected.

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Democrats have argued that Gianforte is not a friend of public education, pointing to his volunteer and charitable support of Christian academies, as well as advocacy arguing that publicly supported scholarships and vouchers should help students attend private schools.

Jason Pitt, spokesman for campaigns of Montana Democrats, said in a statement that Gianforte's proposal to lower income tax rates would "slash school funding back to the 20th century" and noted that Gov. Steve Bullock was among dozens of state and technology leaders who signed a petition in April that called on Congress to expand funding for computer science education.

Romano said in a written statement that Montana schools "need to be on the cutting edge in all subject areas." She argued that Arntzen "has consistently voted to take away our children's education funding and dismantle public schools."

The broad swipe echoed criticisms from the state teacher's union, which has given Arntzen a low score for her voting record. Among other issues, the group has dinged Arntzen for opposing a bill to raise the mandatory school enrollment age to 18 and for supporting a bill later vetoed by the governor that would have used state and local funding to provide tuition vouchers for students to attend private schools.

During a telephone town hall Monday night, Gianforte said teachers need more resources, and students need more avenues to good-paying jobs – feeding into his campaign last summer to bring high-salary jobs to the state through telecommuting.

Gianforte said the initiative announced Tuesday wouldn’t be cost-prohibitive. He noted that CodeMontana, which develops computer science curricula for schools, cost only “tens of thousands of dollars” to launch.

“It just didn’t cost that much money, so I don’t think these proposals require a lot of resources,” he said. “We do need to fund it; I’m not saying we’re not going to fund it.”

He also suggested that until more teachers are trained in computer science that the Digital Academy should expand to add more computer science courses, which are offered to students in all districts in the state via an online platform.

Executive Director Bob Currie said the academy already has been looking at ways to expand those types of course offerings.

He noted that web design, which includes some coding instruction, was one of the first classes offered when the academy launched in 2010. In 2014, they started offering a more technical computer science course designed in partnership with Montana State University’s program.

“We’re poised to expand those courses further as students identify that as something of interest,” he said, noting that to-date the computer science class has not seen enough demand to expand beyond one 25-student section.

This academic year, 34 students from 18 high schools took either a fall or spring course on computer science. Likewise, 30 students from 25 schools completed the web design class. Participating students attended schools of all sizes from border to border, from Arlee to Bainville and Billings to Whitefish.

Currie said the academy has not yet talked with Gianforte or Arntzen about their ideas for an academy expansion, but noted that the program is designed to supplement classes offered in-person by districts. It does not have the capacity to offer whole programs for districts, which would teach all classes for all students in a particular subject area, he said.

Some of the smallest districts with graduating classes of 20 or fewer might use the academy as their only source of foreign language instruction, for example, while Currie said larger districts might enroll a handful of students in that same class to offer them scheduling flexibility. Academy teachers also teach traditional classes at dozens of districts, and the program is not designed to operate as a fully online school with its own staff, Currie said.  

“That’s an entirely different model than we have now,” he said, noting that such an idea differs from all discussions to-date with the Office of Public Instruction and other state leaders. “If their proposal is something that would really, really expand enrollment exponentially then obviously we would want to be involved in planning at the early stages because that isn’t what we do right now.”

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During the tour of Hellgate, Gianforte and Arntzen saw examples of how some teachers already incorporate technology and computer science curriculum into their lessons.

The fifth-grade classes of teachers David Bixby and Erin Ellis demonstrated how they use iPads in their daily education, from attendance to choosing school lunch to math lessons.

They headed to Jamie Blixt's broadcasting class at the middle school, where students learn about journalism, how to shoot video and use the industry-standard Adobe Creative Suite software. The candidates also watched Tim Mosbacher's programming class, where students were putting the finishing touches on video games.

"If you look at the tradition of education, where we've been, where we are, where we're going to go, they have all of that here," Arntzen said of Hellgate.

Gianforte praised the programming course as an example of the direction more Montana schools should take.

“There’s a distinction between the use of technology versus authoring technology,” he said. “We need to do both, but we’re light right now on the authoring of technology.”

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