Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen seems to have borrowed a ham-handed technique from Washington, D.C.
As public educators and leaders from around the state were gathered in Great Falls, grilling her with questions which she struggled to answer, Arntzen tried to shift blame away from her, placing it on the state's media.
Keep in mind, she had roiled conference attendees at the Montana Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals when, after being asked a question about publicly funding preschool, Arntzen replied that she would not impede it. Educators scoffed at the superintendent repeatedly using the word "impede" when it came to public education programming. Why, they wondered, would an education leader even contemplate impeding? Why not helping or empowering?
During the question-and-answer period, Arntzen was also criticized for her plans to abandon the statewide Graduation Matters program which had been championed by her predecessor, Democrat Denise Juneau.
Instead of giving a straightforward defense of her position, Arntzen instead blamed the media saying, "All I can tell you is you say one word in the press and it turns into a firestorm," according to The Great Falls Tribune.
No, Elsie. It wasn't just a word.
Instead, Arntzen removed the program from the website and said it was being phased out.
Quite a bit more than just a word.
In Great Falls during a span of five years, the Graduation Matters program helped cut the number of high school drop-outs in half, from 210 to 101. Last year with continued focused effort, the program helped bring the number to less than 100.
Impressive results. And, while the drop in dropouts is certainly due to the hard work of teachers and administrators, the benefit of community collaboration and focus cannot be underestimated.
Similar Graduation Matters groups existed throughout the state, including in Billings, which aimed at tackling the complex, multi-faceted problem of high school dropouts. (Disclosure: Editor Darrell Ehrlick served on Billings group.)
Here's why it's shocking — if not appalling — that a Republican would seek to end the program: Graduation Matters brought private leaders, public educators together with state and private resources to tackle graduation. How many times have we heard leaders, especially those who claim conservative values, talk about how solutions must be found pairing the public education community together with leaders in the private and business sectors?
That's exactly the model for Graduation Matters across the state. It took business leaders, like Bill Underriner who led the initiative and paired them with other community leaders like John Felton of RiverStone Health, Dennis Sulser formerly of Billings Public Schools and now with St. Vincent Healthcare Foundation and superintendent Terry Bouck.
What Arntzen has done in her very short administration is dissolve those bonds that gave rise to these powerful collaborations. But isn't that the exact model she should be considering?
Yes, if her goal is to strengthen public education. But, we can't help but wonder if this is an intentional dismantling of those programs which would strengthen public education, only to make it easier for privatization efforts and charter initiatives?
Preschool funding has shown great promise in other states — conservatives states which have chosen to see such public funding as an investment in the workforce of the future which local businesses will need in order to compete.
Arntzen's blame-the-media play was lame and hardly original. It tried to distract from the fact that Graduation Matters is indeed being phased out or relegated. Arntzen is simply upset that her actions have been made public.
However, the media also has an obligation not to let her off by passively accepting the blame. In this day of blaming the media, we cannot let the assertion pass.
When Graduation Matters was removed from the state's website, we reported it.
When we followed up the next day, her spokesman insisted that phasing out doesn't mean it is being phased out.
When criticized about her approach to education in Great Falls, the Tribune ran her words verbatim.
What, Elsie? What hasn't been represented?
If there has been a firestorm during her brief tenure, we'd suggest Elsie's the one holding the match.
-- The Billings Gazette