HELENA — State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau urged state lawmakers Monday to invest in Montana’s public schools, which she called “the great equalizer” and a key to economic development.
“It is the last, great public endeavor we have in this country that is open to all, to every citizen,” she said in a speech to the Legislature. “Public education proves that America is still the land of opportunity. …
“There is no better economic-development tool than making sure our young people receive a quality education so they can secure a good job and are better able to support a family. To be pro-business, you have to be pro-education.”
Juneau, a Democrat, addressed a joint session of the Montana House and Senate, which are controlled by Republicans.
She outlined a half-dozen proposals for increased state school funding, from computer technology to career training, and called on lawmakers to fund them.
Juneau also said public schools across the state are incubators for innovative, adaptive programs, such as rural schools that have gone to four-day weeks, Montessori classes in Helena, Spanish immersion classes in Missoula and a Career Center in Billings.
“It is all happening within our public system,” she said. “This innovation helps keep us at the top of the nation.”
Juneau made no mention of “school choice” bills supported by some Republicans that would enact state tax credits to assist students attending private schools, or allow charter schools. Juneau has opposed the measures.
She also joked about her close 2012 re-election victory over Republican Sandy Welch, noting that Sunday’s Super Bowl was a close contest — “almost close enough for a recount.” Juneau won by about 2,200 votes, and Welch considered asking for a recount.
State funding for public schools, as always, will be one of the key issues of the 2013 Legislature, as Juneau and Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, have proposed several programs to boost school funding.
A Republican state senator, Llew Jones of Conrad, also is sponsoring a sweeping school-funding bill that would add $80 million in state funds over two years and cut local school property taxes, using state oil-and-gas revenue to offset those funds.
Policies and bills that Juneau pitched in her speech include:
— Her proposal to raise Montana’s compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18, or high school graduation. A Senate committee voted last week to kill the measure, but Juneau asked lawmakers to “bring it back to life and pass it.”
She noted that Montana hasn’t changed its compulsory education age since 1921, when it said students had to stay in school until 16 or eighth grade: “Our 21st Century realities cannot be sustained by our 100-year-old policies.”
— A bill providing state funding for schools to help students up to age 19, if they need more time to work on getting a high school diploma. Juneau said Montana is the only state that doesn’t provide such assistance.
— An increase in funding for the Montana Digital Academy, from $2.3 million to $3.8 million for the next two years. The academy offers on-line courses to public-school students across the state.
— Bullock’s $6 million proposal to help schools beef up technology.
— A $1 million proposal to expand career and technical student organizations, which recruit students in various professions.