Two Montana teachers want to be the state’s next Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Term limiting prevents current Superintendent, Democrat Denise Juneau, from running again. Republican state lawmaker Elsie Arntzen recently filed paperwork to replace her.
"Why am I running? You know, I have a lot of experience."
The 59-year-old, six-term state lawmaker and longtime Billings elementary school teacher ran last year for Montana's lone U.S. House seat.
Arntzen was defeated during the primary, but says the combination of her experiences has given her valuable insight.
For instance, she says federal mandates, such as excessive standardized testing and compliance demands, can be counterproductive in classrooms. Arntzen says local school boards should have more control.
"So my job is to make it easy and put the trust back in our schools and let them do the work. They're the ones who are accountable. It's not someone in Helena or someone in D.C. It is the teacher in the classroom. By gosh, that's where it needs to start and that's where my job's gonna be."
Helena teacher and Montana school superintendent candidate Melissa Romano agrees that "teaching to the test", or too heavily preparing students for standardized exams, isn't the best approach to education.
"Teachers using formative assessment every single day, minute by minute; those are the assessments that we want to be pushing. Those are the assessments that give real time data about students and help teachers make decisions to reach kids and have kids reach their fullest potential."
The 38-year-old Democrat says Senator Jon Tester has the right idea. Under his proposal those annual federally-mandated tests would be replaced with one in elementary, one in middle school and one in high school. States or local school boards could determine if more tests would be necessary.
Romano, who's president of the Montana Council of Teachers of Mathematics, says she's dedicated to preserving strong schools.
"We have a lot of great things going on in Montana. One is that we do not divert tax dollars to for-profit charter schools. We don't tie teacher evaluation to student test scores. I believe that's what makes our public education system strong; it's public."
Over 100 teachers from across the state are in Missoula this week for a teaching and leadership conference.
Among them is Marco Ferro, a lobbyist and director of professional development for the state's largest union, the MEA-MFT. The teacher's union opposes Senator Elsie Arntzen's candidacy saying she's repeatedly voted to privatize Montana's public schools.
Arntzen, an MEA-MFT member, vows that if elected she would only focus on how to best manage public schools.
Ferro's not convinced.
"Her voting record doesn't agree with that. She has voted against keeping education public on several occasions. She votes for tuition tax credits and charters [schools]. She has a different opinion about what is private and what is public than I do."
In fact, most of the teachers I spoke with at this conference said they’re supporting Melissa Romano at this early stage of the campaign.
Helena’s Shannon Preshinger is an 8th grade English teacher who’s familiar with both candidates, but wants to hear more from each before making her decision.
"Ms. Arnzten has done lots on the legislative level, so I know she has a voice there. Perhaps Melissa Romano's name is a little more familiar because she's a local educator.
Asked if she has any preference at this point, Preshinger said, "I don't share my preferences. I like to see the field play out and ultimately it comes down to the candidate who will be the best voice for our students and our children in the state of Montana."
And that was a recurring theme among the educators who are gathered for that conference. They say the state school superintendent is an important office for Montana's teachers and students and they're hoping whoever replaces Denise Juneau will be dedicated to both.