It’s been more than 30 years since a Republican won election as Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The party’s current nominee, Elsie Arntzen of Billings, is hoping her 23 years’ experience as a teacher and 12 years as a state legislator — and support for local control of schools — will change that.
“This is Montana, and we need to make sure Montana schools continue as they are,” Arntzen said. “These are Montana schools, they are not federal government schools. So making sure that local control means something in our state is something that I can put back into it.”
But standing in her path is Melissa Romano, a fourth-grade teacher in Helena and a 13-year veteran of the classroom. In 2012, she won the National Science Foundation’s President’s Award for Excellence in Mathematics for her work as a K-8 math coach and as a second-grade and kindergarten teacher.
She’s not shy about her support for public schools and opposition to what she sees as a Republican push to privatize education.
“We know Republicans are about privatizing public education,” Romano said. “Public education is the great equalizer. Everybody should have the chance to get the best life and have every single opportunity to be their best. We take every kid and push them as far as we can get them. And with Republicans in office, that’s not going to happen.”
Romano has endorsements from the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers, which represents 18,000 teachers and school workers, and Montana Conservation Voters. Her priorities include adequate funding for K-12 schools, for pre-kindergarten, and for funding to allow schools to accept students older than 18.
“Melissa believes in public education for all, not some, but all,” said MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver. “She believes that public school teachers must be properly prepared, professionally developed, licensed and endorsed.
Arntzen has backers too. She has endorsements from the Montana Chamber of Commerce, which gives her a 100 percent score for her legislative voting record. The Montana Bankers Association has endorsed her too.
“Her experience as an elementary school teacher and business-friendly state legislator make Elsie an excellent choice to oversee education, including Montana’s future workforce,” chamber officials wrote.
Backgrounds and issues
Both candidates are steeped in education. Arntzen earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Montana in 1978 and a bachelor’s in education from Montana State University in 1992.
She said she’s in the race to represent public schools.
“I grew up in our public school system, went to both of our university systems and my children are from our public school systems,” she said. “All of that resonates with a lot of individuals.”
But she’s not opposed to cooperation with non-public schools.
“I’m running for this office to serve students in our public school system,” she said. “However, I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to education. My focus is on public schools, but it’s important to have open lines of communication with schools outside of our public system, since thousands of students flow between our different education systems every year.”
Romano has a bachelor’s degree in social science and a master’s in elementary education from Connecticut’s University of Bridgeport. She’s been active in local and state groups working to improve teaching in math and science.
She also supports Common Core, the nationwide effort to set achievement standards with local and state educators determining how to meet them. She said she helped with their development in Montana.
“I’m a huge advocate of Montana Common Core,” she said. “There are high standards for students, from a teacher’s point of view. When teachers can collaborate, and teachers are learning more together, students learn more as an end result.”
She said Arntzen’s time spent in Helena and out of the classroom puts her “out of touch” with issues such as Common Core.
Arntzen, who retired from teaching in 2015, said Common Core isn’t necessarily bad but she isn’t necessarily a fan, either. She has called Common Core a “top-down mandate” that came from out of state. She said it should be revised because parents and communities didn’t have enough input in the process.
“I don’t think the door has been shut on the discussion of Common Core,” she said. “Standards are here to stay. We’ve had standards in Montana for a long time and I view Common Core as the floor. It should not be the ceiling.”
Arntzen also said Montana schools need less regulation by the federal government and that they are also overburdened with too many requirements to collect data. She hopes that by pushing for more local educational freedom, schools can become more flexible.
Another issue dividing the two is whether local school districts should admit 19-year-old students who may have dropped out or have special needs. Current law allows schools to cut off public support for students at age 18.
Arntzen voted against a bill to allow that last session. Romano supports the idea.
“I’d like to make sure that every single student, whether you’re a student with special needs, our highest achieving student or you’re a 19-year-old has the resources they need to learn,” Romano said. “I do believe we should fund 19-year-olds. We are the only state in the nation that doesn’t do that.”
Arntzen supports the current law. “I believe it is important to direct funding to our students already in K-12 education instead of spreading resources too thin,” she said. “We must serve the kids already in our buildings.”
Compared to Montana’s race for governor, this contest has been a low-profile affair, though Romano has teamed up with Gov. Steve Bullock in making campaign stops around the state.
Arntzen’s has racked up the mileage, too.
“I have changed my oil in my car four times,” she said. “I have a slow leak on my front, right tire. I feel pretty confident with what I’m doing.”