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Montana Chief Denise Juneau Announces Run for Congress

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 04, 2015 3 min read
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Montana Superintendent Denise Juneau, a Democrat, announced Wednesday she will run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016 against the state’s at-large Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke.

Juneau was first elected state chief in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012. As chief, she’s overseen efforts to improve the state’s graduation rate and some of its most disadvantaged American Indian students. She’s been overseen the development of a new teacher evaluation system in the state. And Juneau’s been aggressive about seeking some policy flexibility from Washington, but also hasn’t been afraid to decline it.

She gained a measure of national attention four years ago, when Juneau gave a speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in which she praised President Barack Obama for emphasizing schools.

“President Obama knows that education is the best investment an individual can make in themselves,” she said in her speech. “For some students, school is the only place where they get a hot meal and a warm hug. Teachers are sometimes the only ones who tell our children they can go from an Indian reservation to the Ivy League.”

That’s a theme that’s echoed on her new campaign website, which states: “Denise wants Montanans to see that it’s possible to go from Head Start to Harvard, and from a small reservation town to Congress.” She weighs in against “one-size-fits-all federal policies” (more on that below) as well as “corporate interests.”

But Juneau faces tough historical sledding when it comes to the congressional seat she wants—the Billings Gazette pointed out that a Democrat hasn’t held the state’s at-large congressional seat since 1997, and that Montana hasn’t sent a woman to the House since 1941.

The chairman of the Montana Republican Party, Jeff Essmann, reacted to Juneau’s announcement by calling her “a career politician in desperate need of employment by the government.”

Juneau’s Record

Despit her 2012 remarks at the DNC, Juneau hasn’t been afraid to say no to, and express skepticism about, the Obama administration’s approach to education policy.

She joined a handful of other state chiefs to tell the U.S. Department of Education that Montana was not interested in seeking a waiver from portions of No Child Left Behind Act, although that waiver wasn’t as important for her state as it was for others given prior flexibility the state had received from adequate yearly progress targets. She criticized the Education Department back in 2011 for not offering the simpler deal of letting states freeze their academic targets until Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (In case you’ve been living deep in the Pacific Ocean for the past for years, that hasn’t happened yet.)

However, in 2013, Juneau did obtain a prized “double-tesing” waiver from the department that allowed the state to administer Smarter Balanced field tests instead of its traditional statewide exams. Montana was the first state to win such a waiver.

Juneau is the first American Indian woman in the country to hold a statewide office, and is a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes. Last month, my coworker Corey Mitchell wrote about Montana’s Schools of Promise program, which Juneau began in 2009 and uses federal grant money to help teachers’ union leaders, school board officials, and administrators attempt to address students’ academic and social-emotional needs in some of the state’s most disadvantaged schools, many of them serving mostly American Indian students.

The academic results of that program have been mixed, Juneau admitted, but said, “When you see these communities, and you see the struggles and challenges, ... you also see the promise that exists. We have a serious obligation to do as much as we can.”

In 2009, Juneau also began Graduation Matters Montana, which provides state grant money to 17 communities to help students explore and achieve college and career opportunities. The program measures the share of students who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms among participating students, among other things.

This past spring, Juneau had an assessment crisis to deal with when the Smarter Balanced exam experienced prolonged technical problems. Ultimately, she decided to let school districts cancel Smarter Balanced if they felt the problems were too much to deal with, although she said most schools were ready to move forward with giving the exam.

Photo: Montana State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in 2012. J. Scott Applewhite/AP-File