In the Montana race for Superintendent of Public Instruction — a rerun of the statewide contest in 2016 between the same two candidates — The Billings Gazette endorses Democrat Melissa Romano.
Current officeholder Elsie Arntzen, a Republican from Billings, is clearly a committed, hard-working public servant. But we part ways with her on several issues, including public vs. private education and early childhood education.
Arntzen says that she accepts that funding private schools with public money could hurt rural school districts, but that in the rest of the state, “parents know what’s best for their children.” Romano, by contrast, has been a strong and consistent advocate of public-school funding.
The way this issue has affected the state is reflected in the OPI’s handling of a rule issued by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos which specified some funding to private schools from CARES Act COVID-19 relief funding. Many states, aware of the chance the rule would be thrown out by the courts, hesitated before following it, and indeed the rule was struck down as unconstitutional, and DeVos withdrew it.
But by that time, OPI under Arntzen had already released funds, which in Billings amounted to about $100,000 — $800,000 statewide — that went to private schools instead of public, and even though the rule has been struck down and withdrawn, the money is not expected to be recovered.
Indeed, the issue of school choice is a key separator in this contest.
Romano also supports a strong, state-funded early-education program – something Arntzen has not supported in the past on the basis that the state doesn’t have the money for it.
We believe in early education. We believe the state should fund such a program, and is being short-sighted in not doing so at present. We also believe that the state should dramatically reform the way it funds public education. A look at the financial bind Billings schools are facing makes it clear that the state owes its students more than it is giving them. And we believe Romano will be a far more effective and energetic advocate for that funding from the Legislature than Arntzen.
Others have criticized Arntzen’s level of organization and effectiveness as the state faced the issue of COVID-19 in the schools. While we believe OPI has performed acceptably under her tenure, we think new leadership could sharpen points of communication and improve relationships with the state’s teachers and administrators.
For Office of Public Instruction: Democrat Melissa Romano.