Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen addresses the House on Feb. 3, 2017, in the state Capitol. Credit: Thom Bridge / Helena Independent Record

Montana Free Press Editor-in-Chief John Adams sat down last week with Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen for a wide-ranging discussion about growing concerns over lead in the drinking water of Montana public schools, Title 1 funding, school choice, and President Trump’s rollback of key provisions of President Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

In one of his first actions as president, Donald Trump, with the help of House and Senate Republicans, rolled back key provisions of ESSA, the 2015 education law that replaced George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. Arntzen said that while she supports ESSA, she also supports less government regulation of schools and current moves toward taxpayer funding for private schools. 

“Why would anybody want a top-down law that’s going to have compliance measures to that? Nobody wants a student to fail,” Arntzen told Adams on the podcast. “School choice … is a flexibility for a student. … It’s a consumer choice of what you do with your money before it’s taxed. … If I want to say, ‘I want to spend my money here, or spend my money there,’ the state should have no authority on what that should be.”

Arntzen recently made headlines when she sparred with state health officials over proposed new rules aimed at dealing with lead in the drinking water of Montana schools. Arntzen said her decision to push back against the changes was grounded in her objection to the process by which they were proposed. 

“Patience is going to be needed for this,” Arntzen said. “We are going to be pressing for this in front of interim committees before the Legislature comes again in 2021. … The Office of Public Instruction and other stakeholders, education advocates, were not even invited to the table in a broad, meaningful discussion. … That’s not good government, that is not transparent government.”

Arntzen also discussed her prior career as an educator, her six terms in the Montana state Legislature, and her current campaign for re-election against Democratic opponent Melissa Romano. Arntzen defeated Romano in the 2016 race for the office of public instruction by a margin of 3.3 percent, becoming the first Republican to hold the office since 1988.

Montana Free Press was founded by veteran award-winning investigative and political reporter John S. Adams. John was formerly the Capital Bureau Chief of the Great Falls Tribune and a correspondent for USA TODAY. John is known as a dogged investigator and the host of the MT Lowdown podcast whose unbiased reporting has changed the shape of Montana politics. Contact John at jadams@montanafreepress.org, or follow him on Twitter.