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Montana’s 1st GOP superintendent of public instruction in 28 years outlines agenda

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MT Superintendent of Public Instruction-elect Elsie Arntzen MT Superintendent of Public Instruction-elect Elsie Arntzen
HELENA -

As Montana’s first Republican state superintendent of public instruction in 28 years, former teacher Elsie Arntzen says she’ll be a “communicator,” involving lawmakers, school officials and parents in discussing what’s best for Montana schools.

The longtime legislator from Billings also told MTN News she wants to “de-politicize” education policy, forming a bipartisan caucus of state lawmakers she hopes will act as a sounding board on the issues.

“Children are not a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent – they’re our kids,” she said.

Arntzen said she’s planning a monthly email to legislators about education bills and will have an “open door” policy to talk about schools and share information on the public-school system.

Other items on Arntzen’s agenda include possible adjustments to teacher-certification requirements, to make it easier to hire teachers for hard-to-fill jobs; and ensuring that Montana’s constitutional obligation for education on Native American culture is fulfilled.

She said she’ll have more concrete proposals prepared by the end of the year. Arntzen takes office on Jan. 2.

Arntzen, 60, defeated Democrat Melissa Romano of Helena in last week’s election, winning 51 percent of the vote.     

She’s the first Republican to hold the office since Ed Argenbright, who left the post in 1988.

The state superintendent is the top public-school official in Montana, in charge of an office that assists on or oversees numerous administrative tasks, such as school testing, licensing teachers, education grants, academic standards and data collection.

The superintendent also is seen as a leader on public-school policy.

Arntzen won despite strong campaign opposition from MEA-MFT, the union representing public school teachers and personnel in Montana.

MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver, who met with Arntzen this week in Helena, said he hopes Arntzen will be a strong advocate for public schools – and not a promoter of tax credits or other mechanisms to aid private-school students and parents.

During the campaign, the union noted that, as a legislator, Arntzen supported mostly failed efforts to aid private or charter schools in Montana.

“I think Elsie Arntzen needs to come to grips with the fact that she is the superintendent of public – underscore, public – education,” Feaver told MTN News. “She is not the superintendent of private and religious schools in Montana. …

“She now has to basically do a 180 from where she was in the Legislature, to become an effective advocate for public schools, as superintendent.”

Arntzen said she wants to strengthen the public-school system and make it a “beacon” for education in the state, but that other education systems exist in Montana for children, and that people use and accept them.

“We need to make it so it’s not an `us-versus-them’ mentality,” she said. “This is about Montana kids, our students.”

Arntzen said many public schools in Montana have a hard time recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, and that she’d like to look at ways to allow more “flexibility” in how Montana certifies teachers.

She pointed to proposed rule that the Board of Public Education may adopt on Friday, allowing teachers to more easily use out-of-state experience to gain their Montana certification.

Feaver said MEA-MFT will oppose efforts to “diminish the meaning of (teachers’) licensure.”

Arntzen also said she’d like to examine how fewer regulations might free up more money for school districts, to use in the classroom.

“It’s extremely important that the flow of money is not prohibited, or inhibited, by any means, by having a regulation that is top-down,” she said. “We need to make sure that it is local control. I ran on local control, and I believe in our (school) trustees.”

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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