Following the news that 2018 Montana Teacher of the Year Melissa Romano intends to challenge current Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen again, a number of my friends on social media responded with excitement, repeatedly noting that Romano is “more qualified” than Arntzen.
While I appreciate their sentiment, they’re wrong.
Romano is not “more” qualified; she is qualified.
And Arntzen assuredly is not.
At the heart of Arntzen’s lack of qualifications must be the non-trivial point that she has actively undermined Montana public education. During the past legislative session, she continued her longstanding support for diverting public resources to private schools, going so far as to appear at a rally to speak on behalf of the private school advocates’ agenda to destroy Montana’s excellent public schools.
That’s not all. During the session, her office failed to take a stand against a crackpot Republican bill that would have made educating your kids optional and, in the words of the sponsor, would have let parents just “send their kids out to work the farm.”
Her unwillingness to fight for public schools is only the beginning, though. During her rocky tenure, Arntzen has done actual harm to Montana kids.
In perhaps the most horrifying example of her malfeasance, Arntzen’s agency did nothing when a student with disabilities was denied an education by his school district, and sent to a basement to “watch DVDs or sort nuts and bolts.”
The harm done to the student and the failure of OPI to act were so egregious that the case was eventually settled for over a million dollars.
In 2017, she offered a school improvement plan for Montana schools that called for massive gains in achievement by students with disabilities. A noble goal, perhaps, but Arntzen demanded that schools achieve these goals with no additional resources As I wrote then:
Her almost total inability to communicate aside, we can’t ignore the fact that, knowing she intended to increase proficiency standards for students with disabilities, Arntzen couldn’t be troubled to advocate for those students and increased funding to serve their needs before the Legislature. Hell, essentially the only reason Arntzen could consistently argue she deserved election over Melissa Romano was her service in the Legislature, but she absolutely refused to use that experience to advocate for students.
And if you can make sense of her explanation, you’re a genius at translating babble into English.
In 2017, she announced that she was going to phase out the incredibly successful Graduation Matters program initiated by her predecessor, no doubt for political reasons. The announcement was so incompetently handled that the press covering her decision literally could not tell what she had done. Two years later, the program is truly dead, with no references to it on the OPI site, despite Arntzen’s staff assuring Montanans in 2017 the material would be moved to a new web site.
It’s that kind of incoherence that has characterized Arntzen’s term at OPI.
When it comes to making schools safer for students in this era of mass shootings, this was the guidance families and teachers received from the head of Montana’s schools:
When her office took over the Teacher of the Year program from teachers, she offered this explanation:
“A budget is a challenge, it’s a philosophy. I believe that, and a focus that comes from leadership and there is room at the table and I believe that it’s up to my leadership and of course giving leadership to our division heads here,” she explained. “I don’t believe that would be in any purview that we would want to that. That this is either Teacher of the year or we’re going to cut something else, I don’t believe that would be in at all.”
Asked about her failure to support pre-school in the 2017 session, Arntzen offered this answer, one rivaled by the likes of Tolstoy and Dickens in its clarity and insight:
“But I do need to share with you that when I did ask that question, and I did a lot of traveling, it was not on the number one. The number one was making sure I had a teacher that’s there. So I do believe in our tight, fiscal minds, we have to say that wish list is big. That wish list is there and it’s on that list. But at this opportunity time, is that it? But again, I’m going to reiterate, if the Legislature does so happen, because it would take that opportunity to occur, if that happens, then I would do that within my power and with your energy in this room, to put that forward for our neediest and our youngest. I will not impede that.
Elsie Arntzen might be qualified to run one of the private schools Greg Gianforte thinks should replace Montana’s public schools, but this opponent of public education who has offered incoherent policy vision and incomprehensible public statements in defense of plans that actively undermine Montana’s schools has no place heading up the agency entrusted with helping all Montana students.
Melissa Romano is eminently qualified to head Montana’s schools. Elsie Arntzen has repeatedly proven—in her own incoherent words—that she absolutely is not.