Why is Elsie Arntzen Working with ALEC to Undermine Montana’s Public Schools?

Elsie Arntzen simply doesn’t seem to understand her job. Despite having been elected as Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, she has devoted enormous energy to the promotion of private schools at the expense of Montana’s excellent public school system.

The good people over at Montanans Organized for Education Action Fund caught her at it again this week, when Arntzen was on a panel promoting school privatization put on by American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

It’s almost perfectly Elsie. She’s being praised by an insurance company’s lobbyist for speaking at a forum discussion hosted by a right-wing zealot who is committed to tearing down America’s public schools at a conference put on by a corporate front group that has been repeatedly exposed for its ham-fisted and sleazy efforts to destroy unions, underfund public schools, and disenfranchise voters.

Montana voters are almost certainly familiar with ALEC, the subject of an excellent documentary by Montana PBS just a few years ago.

What they may not know is that Superintendent Arntzen has been helping them subvert democracy and undermine public institutions since she was in the Legislature. Or that the ALEC Conference Arntzen attended this week was filled with school privatization advocates ranging from a Koch-backed front group to a spokesperson for the Goldwater Institute, which is focused on undermining labor rights for teachers and transferring public dollars to private schools.

They probably also don’t know that among the piece of ALEC-drafted “model” legislation debated at the conference was a measure mandating that colleges and universities treat a diploma from a home school the same as a diploma from an accredited school.

One wonders if Montana voters also know that, while the use of electronic nicotine devices is spreading like wildfire across Montana schools, Big Tobacco is a major funding source for ALEC and will be present at this conference.

And Jeanne Allen? She is the CEO of the Center for Education Reform, which just announced an Astroturf campaign to undermine Montana’s constitutional prohibition against public dollars being used to pay for religious instruction. CER wants to transform Montana’s system of public schools into one that funds unaccountable charter and private schools that will discriminate against and fail to educate many Montana students.

While the details may be surprising, it’s hardly shocking that Arntzen doesn’t believe in supporting Montana’s public schools. During her tenure at the Montana Legislature, the former teacher voted against public education every chance she could:

In the most recent legislative session, Arntzen voted for unconstitutional vouchers to send students to private and religious schools (HB 322) and for tax credit for those private schools (SB 410). In 2013, she endorsed those same policies, repeatedly voting for taxpayers to fund private instruction across the state. In 2011, she went as far as to vote for publicly-funded charter schools which would have had no oversight and opened the door to private charters entering the state and demanding public funds to operate. She’s even quoted on a pro-privatization web site calling for “different models” for privatization across the state.

She also believes, in true Gianforte fashion, that teachers shouldn’t be able to retire. In 2013, she voted against every bill to secure the future of the Teacher Retirement System, even going so far as to vote for a bill that would have taken away the defined benefit pension plan for teachers (SB 406), a bill that would have certainly harmed Montana district as they sought to hire the best employees.

Arntzen, whose response to the presence of brain-damaging lead in Montana schools has been to stonewall, who even failed to speak against a bill ending compulsory education in Montana, and who rallied with privatization advocates like the bigoted Montana Family Foundation during the legislative session, is a threat to the public schools that serve our students and keep our communities whole.

She didn’t deserve her first term at the Office of Public Instruction, and her willingness to put profit ahead of the public interest and private schools ahead of public schools demonstrate we cannot afford to give her another. Perhaps during this race, the Montana media will focus on what matters: why Arntzen has worked so hard to undermine public education and why she’s taking marching orders from corporate front groups who want to turn a profit badly educating kids.

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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