Montana's education superintendent seeks re-election

Montana's education superintendent seeks re-election

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Elsie Arntzen, the first Republican to hold the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction since 1988, will run again for the post in 2020. 

Arntzen is the first of the Republicans swept into office in a 2016 near-sweep of state posts to embrace incumbent status, as two others have announced their intention to seek higher offices.

Her Tuesday morning announcement follows that of Democrat Melissa Romano, who said in April that she would run for Superintendent. Arntzen, previously an elementary school teacher in Billings and legislator, defeated Romano in 2016.

Arntzen has led the state through a transition from complying with No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act, and rolled out a variety of initiatives aimed at boosting student achievement, some of which were effectively re-branded from previous Democrat administrations. 

She both downplayed the importance of party identity and hit notes targeting GOP voters. 

Serving students, she said, isn't something "that has an R or a D on it by any means."

But she appeared at a pro-school choice rally, which supports measures that would offer public funding for students to attend private schools and is typically a Republican platform, in January. 

On Tuesday she advocated for integrating private schools and homeschooling more closely with public education, though she didn't offer specifics. 

"We must all three blend together and champion our most precious, our students, which is our future," she said. 

She also emphasized her role on the Land Board, which is populated by statewide office holders and often gets high billing in Republican campaigns. 

Arntzen emphasized improving access to public lands "for who we are in Montana ... ranchers' and farmers' access to grazing ... oil and gas and coal."

She advocated for a largely hands-off legislative approach during the 2016 campaign, arguing it "depoliticized" the superintendent office. She largely followed through in the 2017 legislative session, but waded further into politics in the 2019 session. 

She specifically championed a proposal that criminalized sex between teachers and students and barred schools from offering a job recommendation to a teacher who had had sex with a student. Both a Republican-backed version of the bill and a Democrat-back version passed with bipartisan support. 

She also brought a new layer of celebration for inflationary increases to existing school payments passed early in the session, treating passage as a major milestone though it's required by Montana law. 

Arntzen also has seen her share of controversy. She accused previous superintendent Denise Juneau, a Democrat, of falsifying ACT scores that were submitted to the federal government as all proficient in 2015.

A subsequent review found that Juneau's administration always intended to change the scores submitted, as Juneau claimed, but also that the scores were never actually submitted and therefore weren't falsified. Arntzen had called the review an "external investigation" although the firm hired by OPI called it a "really just a workplace policy and procedure review."

One of Arntzen's first hires, Randy Vogel, rejected a post at OPI after his comments on social media drew fire from the Montana Human Rights Network.

At the time, Arntzen said she was unaware of the comments Vogel made on his Facebook page in October criticizing the sexual orientation of outgoing Superintendent Denise Juneau and suggesting that Hillary Clinton was a lesbian. She called them "unprofessional" but said they wouldn't affect Vogel's employment status before he declined the job.  

In 2016, both candidates had clear primary fields. So far, only Romano has filed paperwork with the state commissioner of political practices for her 2020 campaign.

During the 2016 election, Arntzen often highlighted that Romano was the favored candidate of the state teacher's union, which Arntzen attacked as a "special interest."

The union, fueled in part by donations from its national affiliate, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2016, far more than in previous races. In turn, Democrats have criticized Arntzen, whose husband is the CEO of Century Gaming, for pumping about $84,000 of her own money into her campaign.

On Tuesday, Arntzen said she has refocused the Office of Public Instruction on students — “it’s not about the system, it’s not about associations.”



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