Elsie Arntzen entered the Montana House chamber Friday afternoon as the first Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction in decades, doubling down in her State of Education address on a promise to scale back advocacy some had considered political.
“For 12 years, I have been honored to serve shoulder-to-shoulder with you in these chambers as well as with our esteemed colleagues in the Senate,” she said, also recognizing other statewide elected officials and tribal leaders as important collaborators.
“But I have to tell you,” the former teacher said to chuckles, “sometimes you have reminded me of my class of 10-year-olds.”
The joke, in part, referenced political disagreements that Arntzen argued in her campaign had bled into the operations of the Office of Public Instruction.
“We are providing informational testimony on bills and their fiscal implications,” she said, departing from the practice of previous superintendents to sometimes speak in support of or opposition to legislative proposals regarding education policy. “It’s my sincere commitment to depoliticize this office and honor you, honor you the Legislature, as you are the lawmakers.”
Arntzen repeated two slogans throughout her address that she described as priorities of her administration: Montana Proud and Montana Hope.
She emphasized the need to teach students about state history and values, highlighting Indian Education for All and a new arrangement by which the Agriculture Literacy Program will be jointly operated with the Department of Agriculture. She also said that educators and other school staff do important work providing hope for students and their future, academic or otherwise.
“Being Montana proud includes hope. Our school counselors are on the front lines protecting our students,” she said, urging legislators to support strengthened mental health resources in schools to reverse the state’s high rate of youth suicides.
Among her priorities, Arntzen also listed the need to support students who are gifted and talented or who have disabilities, although — in line with her promise to let legislators make policy decisions — she did not testify in support of some legislation to bolster that work earlier this session. Other priorities included efforts to help schools recruit and retain quality teachers.
She also urged legislators to approve her budget proposal, which reinstates some funding sources the governor had suggested replacing with different monies but Arntzen argued would leave local taxpayers on the hook for more.
“I am responsible for leading one of the largest agencies in our state government,” she said. “The budget I have offered is fiscally responsible and funds Montana’s obligation to our public schools. That is why my priority this session is to make sure you do right by our students, our taxpayers and pass my budget.”
In one statement, she also appeared to reference earlier criticisms of how previous superintendent Denise Juneau submitted some required data on testing scores to federal officials while also speaking to growing public concerns about over-testing students.
“Assessment must be purposeful and with meaning for student success. The data must be governed with integrity and with respect for student privacy,” she said, later adding: “I was elected gatekeeper of our Montana schools from federal overreach… Local control, flexibility: These are Montana values I will be advocating for at the federal level.”