HELENA — Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said in a debate Tuesday that charter schools would not work in Montana, while Republican opponent Sandy Welch said she would consider a properly designed charter school system.
The two debated Tuesday night in Helena, where Juneau touted improvements in student scores during her tenure while Welch was critical of what she described as "stagnant progress" at the Office of Public Instruction.
Juneau, a Democrat, has made a push in office to increase the state's graduation rate by focusing on an initiative to prevent dropouts.
Welch, 47, is campaigning on a platform that the state office is overregulating local schools.
During the debate, Juneau said she is opposed to charter school systems that she argues hurt public schools by siphoning money away to a parallel system. She also opposed vouchers and tax credits for private schools.
Juneau pressed her opponent to also oppose those ideas, which are popular with some Republican legislators.
Welch cautiously opened the door for supporting a charter school system, but only as long as it did not take money from the current public school system. But she did not offer a ringing endorsement for the idea, arguing she would oppose "wild west, wide-open charter schools."
The two differed on using test scores to evaluate teacher performance. Welch said it could be a useful tool — while Juneau said the tests were not designed for that purpose, although she said ultimately that decision should be made at the local level.
The two sought to clearly articulate distinctions in a race that will appear far down the ballot in November, and in an election year where candidates in higher profile state races are getting far more attention.
Juneau argued that Welch's conservative ideas harm the school system.
"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 said.
Welch argued Juneau is inflating her job record, and pointed to national test results that show Montana students are not improving as much as the state-based tests touted by Juneau would show.
"Test scores in Montana may have been going up, but not by a statistically meaningful amount. And the U.S. averages have been going up, which means Montana is falling behind," Welch argued.
The office is one of five statewide elected positions, from the governor on down, that gets a seat on the Land Board. Juneau touted her role in bringing in a record amount of money from trust land for state coffers that can be used for schools. Welch countered that the increase was driven largely by the increase in market prices for Montana resources.
Juneau, 45, is serving her first term as superintendent of public instruction. She is an enrolled member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, and lays claim to being the first American Indian women elected to a statewide position.
The Democrat attended Montana State before getting a graduate degree at Harvard, and then a law degree from the University of Montana. Earlier this month, she was given a prized speaking role at the Democratic National Convention, where she discussed work done to improve schools.
Welch, a consultant from Martin City, previously worked as a math teacher and school administrator. She was born in Pennsylvania, taught schools in California and moved to Montana in 1998 and was principal of Ronan High School until 2004.
Welch studied actuarial science at the College of Insurance before getting teaching credentials at University of California, Berkeley, and a graduate education degree at California State University, Haywood. Welch last ran for office in 2010, losing a GOP primary for a Flathead County state legislative seat.