If Only Someone Had Covered the Race for Superintendent of Public Instruction

When people ask me to explain why I am so frustrated about the last election cycle, both nationally and here at home in Montana, they’re surprised to learn that I am not most frustrated and alarmed by the results, but the coverage of the races. As dangerous and threatening as the prospect of Donald Trump being President is, that’s a temporary harm. The long-term threat we face is much more profound, a media environment in which candidates can get elected to office without the public knowing anything about their views on critically important issues. Trump is unlikely to last even four years in the White House, but the future of media coverage is a more enduring concern, one that shows little sign of improvement.

Here in Montana, that lack of coverage was nowhere more evident than in the coverage of the Tier B races. Other than random stories about legislators who kill dogs or poach game, the media has largely given up on coverage of the Legislature, even when white supremacists are running with the financial support and endorsement of the state’s leading GOP officials, but there has always been some coverage of the Tier B races beyond self-serving candidate profiles and endorsements. In this cycle, that simply wasn’t the case, as Montana voters went to the polls and voted in those races with less information than they have ever been provided for these critical offices.

The latest news from the Superintendent of Public Instruction underscores that concern. She announced over the weekend that she is likely to phase out one of Denise Juneau’s signature programs, the Graduation Matters initiative. The release from her office offered little explanation for the change, other than to, without evidence, assert that “the program had very few strings or accountability measures tied to the money to begin with.”

One of the best measures of accountability is success, and the truth is that Graduation Matters has been an unqualified success. Since its inception, graduation rates in Montana have increased 6%, which means that 500 students a year have an opportunity to not only be productive members of the economy, but better-developed humans, with more potential to achieve their dreams. It leveraged private dollars, engaged communities and schools, and showed students the importance of working to get their diplomas.

And that’s why the press matters—and largely failed to do their jobs in this cycle. Given the importance of graduation rates, its central role at OPI, and Melissa Romano’s support for the program, voters should have been informed about Ms. Arntzen’s views and her plans, just as they should have been informed about her position on the Common Core and other critical issues her office will deal with.

The media seems, almost collectively, to have decided that the lesson to be learned from the last election is the danger of “fake news” but I think that’s too simplistic a narrative. The deeper problem isn’t the kind of terrible news that gets shared on social media, but the absence of deep, critical coverage in our local papers and the fake news of candidate questionnaires masquerading as coverage.

The voters who decided in November to put Ms. Arntzen in office were never told what she intended to do in office, just as they weren’t really informed in the other Tier B races. That’s a damn shame for the kids who Ms. Arntzen will oversee in her new job and for the future of an informed electorate, and there’s nothing “fake” about that news.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • “The voters who decided in November to put Ms. Arntzen in office were never told what she intended to do in office…” – Since when does that matter to party-first, ignore-the-rest voters?

  • THOUGHTFUL article. Thank you for pointing out the less obvious problem with the press…the lack of press. Unfortunately, here in the capital city the newspaper has been a laughing stock for over a decade.
    So, even if there were coverage, it’s doubtful that enough people would have seen it to make a difference. On a personal level, with MINIMAL knowledge on the issues I could. Not. Beeeeeelieve that Melissa Romano didn’t win that election. When I asked my social media friends a sincere “please tell me why you didn’t vote for Melissa”, the answer was overwhelmingly…”we don’t like the current administration and want to give the office to a Republican”…?

    • The current administration at OPI? I certainly hope that wasn’t the case, as Juneau was incredibly effective in the post.
      I think more critical (thorough) coverage of Arntzen would have made a difference. For instance, how did we elect someone to head OPI without knowing her position on state testing and Common Core?

  • I have noted that our democratic republic’s demise is directly due to the saturation of amusement and entertainment into our mainstream media. Investigative journalism is now for sale to the highest bidder and the so called Citizens United has legitimized it all.

  • It is so typical of liberals to cite every one of their policies as a success. Instead of reporting on Arntzen’s actual policies, they whine about how the media doesn’t pay enough attention to your crappy candidates. Maybe it’s because intelligent Montanans don’t believe the crap that liberals feed them. The problem with education is it has nothing to do with students and everything to do with teachers and teacher’s unions. Rarely, if ever, are student’s needs put ahead of teachers, despite the fact that MT students are the future.

    • Someone is feeding you, Snowflake? Uh huh. I see that now. We libs are feeding you crap. Well, you know what they say. You are what you eat! Kinda holds true, don’t it? I offer up exhibit A. YOU!

  • The author provides himself as a prime example of why the school system is failing and why Donald Trump won the election. His views are disconnted from reality. Im sure hes been feeding from the liberal news teet and has no clue what real Americans feel and deal with daily. An old saying “those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach” .

    • Quick grammar lesson:
      In English, the quotation marks go outside the punctuation.

      To indicate contraction, you would have wanted to write “I’m” instead of “Im” and “he’s” instead of “hes.”

      Quick spelling lesson:
      It’s “teat,” not “teet.”

      Quick rhetoric lesson:

      To persuade an audience, a rhetor should actually engage in substantive argument, not mere character assassination, non sequiturs, and ad hominem attacks.

      Pretty good English teacher, huh?

      • “In English, the quotation marks go outside the punctuation.”

        Except in writing laws in Montana. See the bill drafting manual, which requires many departures from standard English.

    • Louder John wrote, “The author has no clue what real Americans feel and deal with daily”.

      Jonny, I really must ask, nay, demand to know what YOU deal with daily that the rest of us don’t, cupcake. Ya see, jonny, you’ve placed yourself in an untenable position. Well, laughable really. You’ve made yourself appear to be an expert on “daily dealings” that YOU alone are privy to. Now, I’m asking you defend that statement! Can you do it? WHAT daily dealies don’t we libs understand that YOU do? Too funny. I await your response, for I haven’t had a good, nay, a GREAT laugh and guffaw all day in my daily dealings! What did you feel today, jon jon? And how exactly is elsie arson gonna remedy that? Be specific. Is she gonna call on god to intervene??? Or maybe get you more handicap spaces for your scooter in front of Walmart?????

      • p.s. And jonny, sorry to be so harsh, but here in Montana, intellectual deplorable is an oxymoron unlike where you’re from in Duck Dynasty land! Any deplorable down that’a way that can read and cipher is as regular Einstein, right??? Where you from anyway, son? Alabama? Obviously you’re not a Montana native!

    • Because I am a teacher, you don’t think that I can do anything else in life. I chose to be an educator here in Montana because I wanted our children to make a difference in life and I do that by teaching them right and wrong. I guess you did not learn that in school

  • Over 70 Billings teachers, including myself, signed a letter to the editor detailing why Elsie should not be elected to supt at OPI. A reporter from the Gazette contacted the principle authors of the letter and wanted to set up a round table discussion regarding our letter. Somehow the meeting fell through and never took place. We Billings educators could have told them once again how unqualified she was for this position. We saw first hand how she lacked in the skill set to do the job. I personally contacted her during the last legislative session regarding education bills urging her to support a number of bills that would have benefitted public education. She provided a lot of lip service, yet each and every time she voted against the children of Montana. Hopefully next election cycle people will be able to get more information about these candidates other than the fact they have an “R” behind their name.

  • I really don’t think you can lay this all on lack of press coverage. The Montana Democratic Party really had little interest in so called B tier candidates and did little to support them. It was pointed out early and often by some very good Montana bloggers that once those primary results came in with 30,000 plus votes in favor of all 4 GOP candidates the demos were in trouble. But we were assured don’t worry the demos and the Native Americans will turn out in the general. Then party elites threw everything they had behind Bullock because that is all they have done in last two election cycles. If we just keep Veto pen in office we have won and done our job. Well the general elections results were nearly same as primary and state land board is now in hands of some right wing wackos. We may see state lands being sold off as in 1950’s. Unfortunately the results of this fumbled election can not just be laid at the feet of major media of Montana. Wake up state democratic leaders what you have been doing has not been working. There is still once chance for the Democratic party in Montana to step up and try something different in the up coming special election

    • So tell me DGF, what would you do differently? Who would you like to see as the Dem. candidate for the special election? I’m seriously interested.

      • I’ve was raised in a very democratic family in eastern Montana in the 50’s and 60’s. I am soon to be 69. I am a Vietnam Veteran and a retired nurse. My family including I still own the family farm and ranch that has been in our family over 100 years. I lived in Poplar for 25 years ,married a Native American and all 5 of my children are enrolled members of the Ft.Peck Sioux Tribe. I moved to the mountain side 19 years ago for work. I was a member of the Montana Farmers Union for years. My family counted Ted Schwinden as a friend long before he was in government. Being from Roosevelt county we seldom elected a republican. I watched as over the last 20-25 years it was hard to find a dyed in the wool democratic in your county among the farmers and ranchers. Our county is now represented by a very far right republican who happens to be Speaker of the House. Yes Frank Smith a democratic represents part of the county only due to weird district that runs for miles and miles to include a couple Indian reservations. Rep.Smith is native but also a long time Poplar business man and very well respected. But I doubt if he was in a different district in Eastern Montana could get elected as a Democratic. Rural Montana has been written off by the Montana Democratic Party for years. The rural areas of Montana were never liberals. They were fiscal conservatives with fairly socially acceptable of some liberal issues. But not ones to push those ideas. Many demos in that area felt as the demo party became controlled by the triangulation of Missoula,Butte,Helena their voice was no longer needed or respected. For years the democrats felt they had a lock on the native vote. It was basically show every 4 years make many promises and the natives fell in line. But that has changed of late with Daines and Zinke actually showing up more often and listening on the reservation. I’ve watched where for 50 years of programs and numerous promises nothing has changed for the Native people. There needs to be more aggressive reaching out to rural areas especially now as grain and livestock prices are suffering. When the Bakken area was suffering due to lack of infrastructure where so much of are extra tax money at the time came from unfortunately Bullock vetoed the Bill which was never fully explained. It may take years to get rural voters back in the democratic fold but the party needs to make great effort now in this coming special elections. I do believe it was the greatest bait and switch election every but we need to try find out why those rural counties voted for Trump by hugh numbers. That area is where tier 2 GOP candidates piled up the votes to win control of state land board. Maybe this cycle was the change election but there is so much more our great Democratic Party can do in rural areas to change our losing run. Go to those local cafes,bars and such listen to what these folks have to say. Talk to the republican ranches ask why they now continue to vote GOP. We will never win this elections with the 40% base. Have the party officers and Helena staff hit the road to those far flung Montana rural areas for listening tour. Our party still can make up lost ground. It will be a hard journey with perhaps little or small gains at first but I don’t have many years left but sure would like to see something different for my young grandchildren other then some wacko right wingers in Helena. I think Curtis is a great person but I don’t think she can get past 40% if candidate. Maybe a new person such as Quist who like Trump wasn’t a political figure. He is well known in rural areas. No matter who is democratic candidate it will be a difficult up hill fight to win against who ever will be GOP candidate. I continue to reach out to eastern Montana family and friends to vote for Democratic party.

        • I appreciate your insight, DGF. A couple of thoughts, though. First, Sen. Jon Tester is a Democrat and you don’t get more rural/farmer/rancher than him. One would think he’d be a good example of a Democrat representing rural interests and that he would also be a good spokesman for the party.

          I agree that 50 years of Native American policy hasn’t changed the lives of Natives that much. But again, Denise Juneau, a Democrat, would have worked hard on those issues.

          Basically, I agree with most of what you say — that Democrats need to do a lot more outreach to rural areas. I’m just trying to point out a few of the bright spots in the narrative you’ve advanced.

          One thing that bothers me is that it’s the person and not the policy that wins an election. Are the values and ideas of the Democratic Party so out of touch with voters that we have to run complete outsiders for a chance to win? I suppose folks look at Trump’s victory as an indication of the total disdain for politics as usual. We’re about to see just how effective this political outsider will be.

          Now, I know and like Rob Quist and in no way would compare him to Trump except that he is also an outsider. But I also know Amanda Curtis; know her commitment to progressive politics; know that she’s a young woman, yet experienced; know that she can run a statewide campaign. That’s why I’m leaning Curtis because I don’t believe we can run away from our core Democratic ideals (but I’m keeping an open mind).

          Of course, I also need to ask what the G.O.P. has done for rural America. Has it helped make health care more accessible and affordable? Has it improved infrastructure? Or schools? Or markets? Or wages? But that’s a conversation for another day.

          Again, DGF, thanks for the comment.

          • Pete, Rob Quist is not part of the Democratic Establishment, and in that sense, he’s an outsider. But he’s still a Democrat — and a Democrat with a rare ability to make a cultural connection with rural voters. That’s no small virtue given the Democratic Party is contracting into an urban identity politics party that is alien and unwelcome to voters in the countryside. Amanda, for all her charm and savvy, cannot expand the map like Quist can.

    • I’d like to echo Pete’s question with a twist. What would you have done differently?

      And the press still needs to do its job, right? I’m sure the 84 stories about Governor Bullock’s plane required all that attention, but surely they could have covered the other races a bit, right?

  • I am going to have to agree with James on this issue. While Curtis appears to be the current favorite among many Democrats and is being pushed by Eric Feaver, she comes with key easily exploitable flaws. Quist, as a political newcomer, has no baggage, excellent name recognition (at least for anyone over 50), enviable likability and, as James points out, can use his outsider status to expand the Democratic base.

    If Democrats are smart, they will go with Quist.

    • You wouldn’t be throwing us a curveball here, would you Pogo? Not that I don’t trust you or anything, but I get worried when Republicans advance Quist.

      • No curveballs Pete, just an honest opinion. I hope your party picks Curtis and so do most Republicans.

        Most GOP insiders preparing for the upcoming Congressional race are expecting the Democrats to nominate Curtis and are looking forward to the treasure trove of public statements and videos Amanda has provided over the past few years. Expect to see her “I am an anarchist at heart”, anti-gun (“Really”) and derogatory comments about religion and family videos played on TV ads. While she is definitely the liberal darling for the left leaning side of Montana’s Democratic party, she will have a difficult time appealing to the large number of independent and swing voters in this state that voted for Trump, Zinke, Rosendale, Stapleton and Arntzen this past November.

        Quist has almost no past public statements on political issues that Republicans can use to attack him other than the generic “he is a Clinton supporting Democrat”. (Maybe some researchers can find something that’s damaging – possible, but I wouldn’t count on it.) He has the potential, as James pointed out, to reach out to a much broader base in rural areas of Montana than Amanda. Republicans will try to pin Quist down on specific issues to find ammunition against him but that could be difficult in the short window available in a campaign lasting less than 100 days. Quist will have to convince voters he is a serious knowledgeable candidate. He appears to be making that effort now.

        Quist’s biggest challenge will be trying to shape his political issues and positions that permit the Democrats to select him over Curtis yet not appear so liberal that he drives off more conservative independents in the election.

        Amanda has a lot of hurdles ahead of her. He biggest challenge in a campaign may simply be putting a muzzle on her husband, Kevin

  • On the issue of the recent Arntzen, Juneau test score dustup, the point many are missing is the report that this issue was revealed by a “whistleblower” within the OPI. While I have met Juneau and personally like her as a bright, capable and well-spoken person, she had employees within the OPI that were not happy with how the agency was being run during her term.

    Some of the revelations and criticisms against Juneau during the recent election came from people within her office. I know James has questioned how I knew about the DUI issue before it became public. The DUI information originally came from an employee within the OPI who tipped off Republican officials with a lot of specific information. The GOP vetted the issue and shared it with journalists weeks before the story broke. Key insider Democrats knew about the DUI story before it broke but apparently took no action to address it before it hit the papers. These disgruntled OPI employees provided the Montana GOP with additional negative information on Juneau. Some of these accusations, while credible, could not be verified due to difficulty in accessing records or reluctance of key people to confirm events.

    The real story here that journalists are underplaying is the fact that employees within the OPI are the ones raising criticisms about how that office has operated over the past 8 years.

    • Pogo, do you think there are any state agencies that don’t have a disgruntled employee or two, no matter who is in charge of that agency or who is in the administration? I can’t think of any.

  • I think POGO is on to something.

    The State GOP would wet its pants with joy if the Dems run a ‘retreaded’ candidate, who isn’t going to have a lot of money or time to campaign.

    I never could resist a good magic show – I’m popping up some popcorn, opening a coke, and I can’t wait to see how the special election shakes out.

    Just coming off the Nov election, and a large GOP advantage in the house, I see the Dems (the party of the rich) sitting on their wallets on this one.

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