Candidates clash over standards, resources, local control

By Melisa Penman University of Montana School of Journalism

Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau is banking that a statewide initiative, Graduation Matters Montana, can bring the number of high school dropouts – nearly 2,000 a year – down by 50 percent by 2014.

Juneau has used her office to build programs like this, which she says are necessary to prepare students for a modern economy. The program, she hopes, something that will earn her re-election this fall.

“It is important to me to continue the progress that we have made,” said Juneau, a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes and the first Native American woman elected to statewide office. “Having communities focus on increasing our graduation rates and improving student achievement is going to pay off in Montana for years to come.”

For Juneau to have a chance to do that, she must defeat Republican challenger Sandy Welch, an education consultant and former Ronan principal who began her career in education as a math teacher.

Both candidates have said they want to encourage more community involvement in local schools, but Welch stresses the need to limit the state’s role in local decisions. The two have also sparred over experimenting with charter schools, publicly funded independent schools that operate under looser restrictions than a traditional public school.

Local control, charter schools

For Welch, the answer to improving education standards and graduation rates is fewer state-organized programs. She said the Office of Public Instruction should be a resource for local schools instead of a state agency issuing mandates.

“What I want to be doing is to be talking about what are the goals for our schools and then giving our local schools and local administrators, teachers, parents and the school boards, the control locally to really address their students’ needs,” she said during a recent interview in Missoula.

As part of that program of school reform, Welch indicated she would be open to considering a “well designed” charter school program. She also said she would relax the rules for higher performing schools while lower performing schools would face a more rigorous set of regulations.

According to the Associated Press, Juneau blasted the idea of a charter program during a debate with Welch, saying, “Throughout this campaign, my opponent has advocated for pulling money out of our public schools to fund private schools and for-profit corporations, grade schools on an A to F scale, get rid of standards that ensure small class sizes and school quality, and use unproven methods to rate our teachers.”

Juneau added in an interview that Welch’s plan to target underperforming schools would put undue pressure on schools where poverty is a major factor in student success. She noted her program Schools of Promise hired 22 people to work with teachers, administrators and school boards in three of the lowest performing districts.

“We know poverty plays a huge part in how students perform, so making sure we are supporting those schools needs to be a goal of the OPI,” Juneau said.

Welch wants the OPI to be a conduit for schools and teachers to share what is working in their districts, and that student learning needs more attention. “In the past the system has focused more on teaching than it has on learning.”

She said Juneau’s administration has overregulated local schools and placed too much emphasis on data.

Juneau countered she used the data first required by the federal government to gauge where schools currently are and where programs may be helpful.

Money for schools

The superintendent holds the additional responsibility of sitting on the five-member State Land Board, which oversees the management of 5.2 million acres of school trust land across Montana.

Welch supports increased development of the state-owned resources as a way to generate more income for schools and increased job opportunities.

“To me natural resource development is one of those things that Montana can do that will really create those opportunities for our kids,” said Welch. “It gives them a reason to excel in school.”

For Juneau, the superintendent should focus on using the resources to generate revenue for the school trust, while managing the land for the future.

As a Land Board member, Juneau recently voted to lease state-owned coal to the Signal Peak Energy coal mine near Roundup. But she opposed Arch Coal’s bid to lease state-owned coal in the Otter Creek area, saying at the time the company’s bid wasn’t in the state’s long-term financial or environmental interests.

Juneau said she would continue working with the Land Board to increase revenue for Montana while protecting the value of state resources. She argued Welch focuses on the energy boom to the detriment of tourism and other uses for state land.

As the race nears the finish, both candidates are touting key endorsements.

The Montana Chamber of Commerce is backing Welch’s campaign, and so is state Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, a Democrat from Box Elder.

Her campaign donors include Republican congressional nominee Steve Daines, GOP gubernatorial nominee Rick Hill, former Superintendent of Public Instruction Ed Argenbright, and political action committees representing the coal, oil, natural gas and timber industries.

Juneau has the backing of the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers, the Montana Public Employees Association and the Montana Conservation Voters. The Billings Gazette has endorsed her run.

Prominent contributors to her campaign include Eric Feaver, president of the statewide teachers’ union; Democratic attorney general nominee Pam Bucy; and dozens of retired teachers and college professors.