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Elsie Arntzen wants to 'depoliticize' the Office of Public Instruction. What might that mean?

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Like the student who brings her teacher a polished apple on the first day of school, Elsie Arntzen began her job as Montana's new Superintendent of Public Instruction with a gesture designed to ingratiate herself to state lawmakers: She created an informal education caucus so legislators can chat about policy proposals over coffee and "delicious apple fritters" from a Helena bakery.

Not everyone was impressed. Sen. Tom Facey, the Democratic minority whip, turned up his nose at Arntzen's fritters. "She was here for 12 years and was not an enthusiastic supporter of public education for kids," he told Lee Newspapers when the caucus was announced.

A former elementary school teacher and state legislator from Billings, Arntzen is the first Republican to oversee Montana schools in 28 years. Walking into the role, she struck a conciliatory tone, emphasizing that "A+ communication, A+ collaboration, A+ cooperation" will be her office's guiding principles. The caucus, she says, is one of her first stabs at "depoliticizing" the Office of Public Instruction.

But Facey isn't the only person skeptical of Arntzen's bipartisan overtures. Behind her words is a legislative record that many in the education community see as a campaign to undermine Montana's public schools. Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the state teacher's union, calls her voting record "deplorable" and "a train wreck." If the priorities suggested by her legislative record carry over to her agenda as OPI chief—particularly her support for "school choice," or privatization—Feaver and others say cooperation is unlikely.

"I don't trust her at all," Feaver says. "I trust her to be exactly what her legislative voting record showed her to be."

Feaver looks to that record as a crystal ball in part because she didn't campaign on specific policy proposals. Instead, she ran on a general promise of "putting students first" over the "powerful special interests" that control public education. President-elect Donald Trump hit similar notes in rolling out a school-choice agenda during his campaign, saying the country already spends "more than enough money" on education, and that improving the system is "simply a matter of putting students first, not the education bureaucracy."

Elsie Arntzen, Montana’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction, says she doesn’t believe her office should lobby legislators on most education policy measures. - PHOTO COURTESY OF OPI.MT.GOV
  • Photo courtesy of opi.mt.gov
  • Elsie Arntzen, Montana’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction, says she doesn’t believe her office should lobby legislators on most education policy measures.

For Arntzen, "depoliticizing" OPI means changing how it does business. In an interview, she describes the agency as "top down," overly focused on compliance with state and federal rules, rather than making sure schools can do what's best for students. She considers MEA-MFT a "special interest group" with which OPI "for so long has aligned itself." It's an alliance she is prepared to end.

"My special interest is students," she says.

Arntzen's de-partisanization of OPI got off to a rocky start. The Republican party operative she tapped as her senior policy adviser, Randy Vogel, declined the job after reporters unearthed Facebook posts in which he derided outgoing OPI chief Denise Juneau as a "female lesbian alcoholic" and surmised that Hillary Clinton is secretly gay.

Regardless of who's in charge, there are relatively few policies the state superintendent can change with the wave of a hand. School boards have significant authority, while a governor-appointed Board of Public Education sets rules regarding teacher licensure and educational standards. Board of Public Education Chair Sharon Carroll says she has "long-trusted OPI to provide the assistance necessary to ensure that all Montana students receive a high quality public education," and intends to continue that relationship. Other groups are similarly willing to partner—cautiously—with Arntzen.

"You can't discount what she did as a legislator," says Montana Rural Education Association Executive Director Dennis Parman, who served as deputy superintendent under Juneau. "What we've tried to do since she came into office is look forward and see what we can do to partner with her administration. We're just kind of taking a 'time-will-tell' approach."

Still, Feaver says, the superintendent position wields much of its power as the state's most prominent voice for public education and, at least at the Legislature, Arntzen isn't eager to speak up. Unlike her predecessors, she says it's inappropriate to use her position to lobby legislators for any particular education agenda beyond statutory inflationary funding adjustments. "That's what they're elected for," she says.

So when a school choice bill comes up for a hearing, for instance, Arntzen plans to stay out of the fray. "We are going to make sure the Legislature has all the information they need to make their choice. We serve the people, and I would not want government lobbying," she says.

The same goes, apparently, for other school funding measures. When a bill to provide inflationary increases for special education came before the House education committee on Monday, Arntzen did not attend, and her staff did not speak in favor.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Legislators' pet?"

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