Race for state superintendent of schools heats up

2012-10-06T00:00:00Z 2012-12-16T15:01:11Z Race for state superintendent of schools heats upBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

For Sandy Welch, the state superintendent of public instruction race essentially comes down to just one thing. 

"I'm focusing on student learning," she said.

She wants to give school districts across the state more flexibility with state standards and give parents more information about school performance.

She believes better informed parents and a more nimble school system will lead to greater student success.

But Welch, the Republican challenger to a popular incumbent, has a tough race in front of her.

She's running against Democrat Denise Juneau, who over the last four years has pushed for more transparency in school performance, helped reservation schools find, in some cases, dramatic success and confronted the state's dropout rate.

"I love this job," Juneau said.

Working with the state school board, her office revised the state's accreditation standards to give school districts more flexibility in meeting those standards. She's also helped guide the state's adoption of the national Common Core Curriculum standards.

Both Welch and Juneau are products of public education. Welch was a high school math teacher and principal in the 1980s and 1990s in California and then a teacher and principal in Ronan and Flathead County in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In 2004, she started a consulting business and in 2010 ran for the state house but lost in the primaries.

The next year she was recruited to be a senate staffer and moved to Helena.

Juneau was a high school teacher in New Town, N.D. in the early 1990s and then joined the Montana Office of Public Instruction in 1998 working as a specialist on curriculum and academic policies.

Before running for state superintendent of schools in 2008, she clerked for the state supreme court and worked as a lawyer.

Welch is critical of Juneau's efforts to get school performance data online. The state system, called the Growth and Enhancement of Montana Students data system, or GEMS, has been in the works for years.

The site currently shows performance and compliance data with the federal No Child Left Behind law for all public schools in the state.

"It's encouraging," Welch said. "But I think they're far behind."

Juneau is proud of the database.

"We've never received any state money to build a system," she said.

The state ordered the Office of Public Instruction to put the database together years ago but never allocated funds for it to be done. So, little by little, they've created the database and the website to make it available to the public, Juneau said.

Both Welch and Juneau agree changes need to be made to the state's method of funding public schools -- specifically to what's known as the basic entitlement.

The current model leaves urban school districts and growing school districts underfunded.

The basic entitlement is a flat sum -- roughly $90,000 for an elementary school district and $262,000 for a high school district -- paid out to every school district in the state.

Each district, regardless of its size, receives the same amount from the state. SD2, with 16,000 students, gets the same check as Belfry, with 25 students.

As the state legislature reconvenes in January, Juneau said she'd use her office to lobby for a more equitable solution.

"We'll address the basic entitlement issue," she said.

Welch plans to do the same if elected.

"The double-A schools across the state have an issue," she said.

She hopes also to find a way to bring more equity to how the state's oil and gas revenues are divided among school districts.

"This campaign is about making sure Montana students are receiving a world-class education," Welch said.

Welch believes charter schools can play a role in doing that. If elected, she said she would look at finding ways to make Montana a more friendly state to charter schools.

The fact that charters have been around for years in other parts of the country means Montana can avoid some of the pitfalls early adopters experienced, she said. 

"We can learn the lessons from other states," she said.

Juneau said she's not comfortable with charter schools and would rather look for ways within Montana's current public education structure to innovate.

The best example, she said, is Billings School District 2's Career Center -- a specialized vocational and engineering school that some high school students attend for half the school day.

There's enough flexibility within the state's structure for schools to innovate like that, she said.

And Montana schools are finding success, Juneau said. She points to current data, showing that on national assessments the state ranks higher than the national average, she said.

She points also to her current fight to lower the state's dropout rate. Two years ago she launched the Graduation Matters initiative -- a state program designed to cut Montana’s drop-out rate in half by 2014.

The program focuses on bringing community stakeholders together with schools and students to help high-schoolers want to stay in class.

Missoula Public Schools designed the program in 2009, and after showing early success Juneau adopted it as the state model in 2010.

Welch sees these successes as too little too late.

"Other states are growing," she said. "We do well, but other states are catching up to us."

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