It may be carbon copy from 2016's ballot, but the climate for this year's Superintendent of Public Instruction race is drastically different from four years ago.
Republican Elsie Arntzen now has a four-year record as superintendent. Her supporters argue the office, long a Democrat stronghold, should stay in Republican hands.
Democrat Melissa Romano lost in 2016, but has continued to stay involved in education policy. She's raised far more money than Arntzen, but like all statewide Democrat candidates she'll likely need Republicans who vote for president to continue down the ticket and crossover to vote for her.
Oh, and there's a global pandemic that's affected the most fundamental operations of schools. That too.
Local school districts have largely laid their own reopening and operation plans this fall. Most Montana schools have reopened to some degree of in-person learning, but models have varied, as have schools' actions to cope with positive cases among students and staff.
The state superintendent has a limited reach when affecting the day-to-day operations of schools. Both candidates lean heavily on the idea of supporting "local control" for schools, and the reality is that the superintendent doesn't have much of a choice. While Montana law grants the superintendent some emergency powers, it's not as sweeping as those granted to the state's governor.
It's a reflection of the wider scope of the job; the superintendent has a role in many education policy issues — setting learning standards, teacher licensure rules, legislative advocacy — but rarely gets to make the final call, and often works in concert with other agencies.
Both candidates said that the Office of Public Instruction, which the superintendent oversees, needs to offer strong support for schools during the pandemic. They differed on how OPI has handled that so far.
Arntzen acknowledged that abrupt shutdowns in March created a scramble to adapt that had gaps, but that OPI has responded well overall.
"Could I do a better job? Of course," she said. "I think everyone in Montana could reflect on what we could've done better."
Romano argued that those gaps are illustrative of a larger lack of leadership by Arntzen.
"As a classroom teacher, I have been able to watch just the complete lack of leadership and mismanagement at OPI," she said.
One specific attack from Romano is that Arntzen "illegally" diverted $800,000 in CARES Act money to private schools. Public schools will lose out on that money, but it's a thorny legal situation.
The Department of Education issued guidance, which isn't legally binding, that money for private schools would be doled out using a different formula than money sent to public schools. Championed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the department then issued a rule, which does carry legal weight.
In Montana, the Office of Public Instruction told schools to follow that guidance. Billings financial officials reckon they sent roughly an extra $100,000 to private schools under the new rule.
Some states still ignored it, and some states sued. They won in three different courts, and DeVos retreated from the rule. But in Montana, the money was already doled out, and schools have admitted they aren't likely to get it back.
That leaves Arntzen and OPI having endorsed a formula that eventually was struck down by courts, as was predicted by wide array of legal experts; but for a time, the rule itself was law. OPI officials have maintained that they were bound to follow it.
Old battle lines
There are ways in which the 2020 race looks very similar to 2016. Romano and Arntzen follow splits on issues like are largely in line with their parties — the most vociferous of which is often school choice, an umbrella term for a variety of policies that direct public money toward private schools.
Arntzen has attended pro-school-choice rallies and voted for school choice policies as a legislator. She typically straddles the fence on direct questions about the policies: "I think a system of education should support students fully," she said.
Romano said school choice is a "line in the sand" for her, even for a bill similar to failed proposal endorsed by Gov. Steve Bullock that aligned with her public preschool priorities but included private preschools.
School choice in Montana recently took center stage in a Supreme Court case about a tax credit program in Montana. The 5-4 ruling found that if public funding is offered to private schools, religious schools cannot be excluded — no matter whether state law bars funding for religious organizations, as a provision in Montana's Constitution does.
That set the stage for the biannual legislature, where a variety of school choice bills have come and mostly gone. Gov. Steve Bullock had vetoed school choice bills before letting the tax credit program become law; the state teachers union, which has long opposed school choice policies, views Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte as a rubber stamp for school choice programs and Democrat Mike Cooney as a firewall.
It's less clear what shape a push for public preschool could take. Cooney has tabbed it as a major priority, but Gianforte has said he doesn't think state finances can support it.
Romano has pushed for a robust public preschool program, and plans to continue, she said.
"Every single teacher I've talked to has talked about how it would benefit their kids, their students, their economy," she said.
Arntzen has largely taken a back seat on the issue. In 2015, she signed on to a letter with other Republican legislators urging Montana's congressional delegation to reject a $40 million federal grant to fund preschool programs.
Both Arntzen and Romano continued to tout the importance of mental health and social-emotional skills for kids, but gave differing views progress in the last four years.
Arntzen pointed to her Montana HOPE initiative, part of an umbrella term for several OPI programs that support student emotional and behavioral health.
"I firmly believe that is what's going to propel me to my next four years," she said.
Romano argued that schools haven't gotten enough support and said that she would propose social-emotional learning standards for students. A 2018 analysis by the National Conference of State legislatures found that 15 states have such standards for grades K-12. Other states typically have them for preschool only.
Counting votes and money
Montana hasn't voted for a Democrat in the presidential race since 1992, yet the state is coming off 16 years of having elected a Democrat for governor in the same elections.
It's firmly a Donald Trump state, according to recent polls. Fivethirtyeight, a news website that creates averages of polls across the county, expects the president to win Montana by about 11 points, with 54% of the vote. That would be a slightly smaller share than in 2016, when he got 56% of the vote. That prediction expects Joe Biden to far outdo Hillary Clinton's 2016 performance in the state, earning 43% of the vote.
Arntzen became the first Republican superintendent in three decades by earning 51.6% of the vote — about 25,000 fewer than Donald Trump, but still enough. Romano's vote total exceeded Hillary Clinton's by about 60,000, but still not enough.
Republicans swept statewide offices except for the governor's race, where Bullock won 52% of the vote. It's not clear that everyone who splits their ticket voted for Trump — but it is clear that the path to victory in a statewide office runs through his voters.
Both candidates said their policies would appeal to potential crossover voters. Romano has a financial advantage in reaching them, though Arntzen has the name recognition of an incumbent.
Romano has raised more than $270,000, mostly from individual donors, far outpacing her fundraising in 2016.
Most of that remained unspent in the latest campaign finance reports, which track financials through Sept. 15.
Arntzen has raised about $50,000, and has about $37,000. She is independently wealthy — her husband, Steve Arntzen, owns Century Gaming, a major gambling machine vendor — and has spent on past campaigns, loaning herself about $70,000 in 2016.
While Romano has raised more this year, she's gotten less support from the state teacher's union, which is part of the Montana Federation of Public Employees.
MFPE has spent about $42,000 supporting Romano. In 2016, the union spent $300,000, buoyed by $200,000 in donations from national teachers unions. This year, MFPE, which now represents a wider swath of public employees than teachers, has spent almost $600,000 supporting Cooney.
The union has embraced Romano wholeheartedly, and vice versa, while its shunned Arntzen. Romano highlighted an official condemnation of Arntzen's candidacy from the union.
Arntzen called those actions on par with a "schoolyard bully." While she's described the union in the past as a "special interest group," she also maintained that she has a good relationship with working teachers.
Romano said that she views strong ties with the union as a positive.
"I believe that we really need a superintendent who values teachers and values teachers' voices," she said.
In 2016, Arntzen ran on "depoliticizing" the superintendent's office by not advocating for specific bills at the legislature. Her follow through has been intermittent; she's stayed out of issues like public preschool or special education funding, while championing bills like one that criminalized sexual misconduct between teachers and older students.
She's standing by that concept, while Romano attacked it.
"I believe that we need a leader who is a strong advocate," she said, highlighting a proposal to add an inflationary increase to special education funding, a long-standing priority for education advocates. "She was absolutely nowhere to be found."
There's no guarantee that advocacy results in success. Repeated, high-profile pushes for public preschool programs led by Gov. Steve Bullock resulted in one modest two-year program that legislators let die in 2019. Romano argued it's still a critical role.
"(Legislators) are less likely to know the pulse of what's going on in our classroom and our districts (without advocacy)," she said.
In the past four years, both candidates have remained in the public eye. Not all of that attention has been positive.
Arntzen declared that there was an "investigation" about fabricated standardized test data from Juneau's tenure, but the owner of the company contracted for the work disputed that term, calling it a simple workplace review. It found that the data was not fabricated, and was never actually submitted to federal officials.
An early political hire by Arntzen came under fire for comments about Juneau on social media that criticized her sexuality. Randy Vogel, a longtime GOP operative, declined an administrative post he was tabbed for, saying he didn't want to become a distraction. Arntzen stood by Vogel.
Romano's husband, Eric Lehman, pleaded guilty to felony criminal possession of dangerous drugs in December and received a three-year deferred sentence. Lehman resigned from his teaching job at a Helena elementary school after he was charged.
Romano addressed the issue candidly.
"He's not the one running for office. I am. I'm grateful and appreciative of the troopers who were doing they're job that day," she said, referring to an incident where Lehman was found with drugs during a traffic stop. "I'm proud of where we're at today and the work that he has done (battling addiction)."
Election Day is Nov. 3. Election officials say voters should vote early to ensure their mailed ballots are counted.
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