As she campaigns for her state’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrat Denise Juneau is sending a mixed message to the state’s voters. And it’s by design.
On the one hand, the state superintendent of public instruction isn’t afraid to highlight her strong relationship with teachers’ unions, her support for publicly funded preschool, and the need for schools to direct more resources and attention to disadvantaged students.
On the other, Juneau wants the public to know that she often disagrees with the federal government on key issues, that she puts a priority on local communities’ decisions over bureaucratic demands from above, and that she has the record to prove it. In fact, if she had to give a rating on a scale of one to 10 of President Barack Obama’s education policy, Juneau would give it just a three.
Rumored to be a candidate for education secretary if Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, Juneau’s candidacy represents a test of whether a Democrat who’s spent much of her career pushing back on federal policies can use that record to beat a Republican incumbent in a largely conservative state.
Even though the state is “pretty dependent” on federal funds, Juneau acknowledged, “no top-down approach, one-size-fits-all-policy really fits every context. That’s always been a problem with federal policy and federal law. I’ve always been a proponent for flexibility. Set the bar, tell us what we’re accountable for, but then let us get there in our own way.”
Juneau was first elected to the state superintendent’s post in 2008 and re-elected in 2012—the same year that she spoke at the Democratic National Convention, at which Obama was nominated for his second term. Her Republican opponent, Rep. Ryan Zinke, occupies Montana’s at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
She frequently highlights the state’s graduation rate that she says has generated an additional $6 million annually for Montana’s economy.
Despite her political balancing act, there’s pretty much “zero criticism” among Democrats that Juneau has been insufficiently progressive, said Robert Saldin, an associate professor of political science at the University of Montana. He cited her two statewide election wins as an additional boost for her candidacy.
If she’s elected, Juneau would be the first Native American woman in Congress, after becoming the first such person in the country to hold a statewide office. She’s an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa tribes and a descendant of the Blackfeet tribe. Juneau grew up going to schools on the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, Mont., as the daughter of educators.
“My story actually takes me from Head Start to Harvard, and from teaching in a classroom in Browning to leading Montana’s public schools,” she said during an early October debate. Juneau received a master’s degree in education from Harvard University, and she taught in Montana and North Dakota.
An Uphill Climb?
Although she’s been connected to the top job at the U.S. Department of Education, Juneau isn’t overly familiar with Clinton’s education proposals for universal preschool and more affordable higher education for some students, saying, “I don’t know where her education stuff is right now.” But when Clinton’s positions are outlined, she said she supports those ideas.
Juneau said she’s “very flattered” by the talk about possibly becoming Clinton’s secretary, but also said she hasn’t discussed the possibility with Clinton’s team.
Zinke was first elected in 2014 and is a former Navy SEAL and state legislator. Zinke doesn’t have an extensive education record in Congress. But he voted for the, the new federal K-12 law, and said it would “roll back” the Common Core State Standards and reduce the role of the federal government in education. In his own attack on the federal government’s role in education policy, Zinke also blasted the standards, which Juneau supports and the state adopted, for being directly linked to a drop in recent Montana scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
“I believe there is a better way to educate our children than Washington mandates and high-stakes, high-frequency national testing,” Zinke said in a statement when ESSA passed last December.
In the Oct. 5 debate, Zinke also criticized school consolidations that often leave rural communities without a key civic pillar. His campaign and congressional staffs did not respond to requests for further comment.
Zinke has had a very large fundraising edge: Juneau had raised just over $2 million for her campaign during this election cycle through Sept. 30, while Zinke had already raised nearly $3.5 million through June 30, the last campaign-finance report he filed.
Political odds makers say Juneau has an uphill climb: On Oct. 4, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rated the race as being a “likely Republican” victory. Polls released by the Zinke and Juneau campaigns in October have put Zinke’s lead at 11 and 3 percentage points, respectively.
Whatever happens, Juneau will not keep her state superintendent’s job: Republican Elise Arntzen and Democrat Melissa Romano are running to replace her.
During remarks at the Great Falls Rotary Club on Oct. 4, Juneau spelled out the various policies from the U.S. Department of Education she rejected, such as the department’s requirement that the state evaluate teachers based on test scores, in exchange for receiving a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act. And she noted that Montana won’t have to change all that much to shift to ESSA, which grants states and districts more K-12 power.
“Teachers have the best stories. And I’ve just been really proud to be able to promote that profession, to respect it enough to push back on federal policies when they don’t fit our rural state,” she told the Rotary audience.
Juneau has also been critical of the federal department’s plans to increase equitable access to high-quality teachers and some aspects of its school turnaround initiatives.
But she lauded the Obama administration’s emphasis on greater equity for disadvantaged students in places with “deep, generational, isolated, and concentrated” poverty.
Emphasis on Local Communities
Discussing one of her signature initiatives, Graduation Matters Montana, Juneau notes that it grew out of practices in the Missoula school district and now involves 58 communities and 450 small businesses.
Graduation Matters partners schools with businesses and organizations such as United Way to develop their own strategies for trying to boost graduation rates. One community, for example, started a Freshman Academy for at-risk students and a peer mentoring program, while another district held monthly school assemblies to promote student perspectives on schooling.
The state’s graduation rate has increased from 81 percent in the 2009-10 academic year, when Juneau began Graduation Matters, to 86 percent in 2014-15. That rise coincided with an increase in the graduation rate nationally, which stood at 83.2 percent in 2014-15.
“We did it without any money from the state legislature, we did it without the federal government’s help,” she said. “It’s really just an issue that we tackled and pushed forward.”
During a visit to Rose Park Elementary School in Billings later the same week, Juneau checked in on that school’s involvement in Graduation Matters. The school is attempting to improve attendance and cut tardiness through new after-school instructional sessions for individual students and small groups, in order to improve students’ chances of graduating down the line.
“This is the grassroots, starting at the bottom. It all starts here,” says the school’s principal, Tami Concepcion.
Juneau spent time visiting with students who had reduced their absences and tardiness. When asked whether the state steps in to help or alter local Graduation Matters programs that might not be producing sufficient improvement, she said it’s not the state’s job to do that: “We don’t intervene.”
That sort of attitude has the potential to appeal to at least some of Montana’s many conservative voters. It’s also won Juneau praise from union leaders like American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. And National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García has personally donated to Juneau’s campaign.
“They’re one of our partners who we talk to all the time about what state policy should look like,” Juneau said. “Do we subscribe to each others’ policies all the time? No. But our values are the same.”
Waiting to hear from Juneau at the Great Falls Rotary Club, Cheryl Crawley, a former superintendent of the Great Falls schools who led the district for 20 years, said Juneau’s work on Graduation Matters made a big difference in her work.
“She brought to this state an awareness of how to fix the achievement gap for the underachieving students in our state. And in our state, that’s mainly Native American students,” Crawley said.
But Juneau’s skepticism of Washington may not persuade many voters to ultimately cross major partisan divides.
“She’s running against an incumbent, and she’s a Democrat,” said Saldin, the political science professor, of her two biggest weaknesses.
Standing in the audience after the Oct. 5 candidate debate, Don Jacobs,a Zinke supporter who said he used to run a trucking company and rodeo show, said he was unconvinced that Juneau would be anything other than a typical Democrat fond of big-government programs. He cited Washington’s treatment of Native American communities in Montana as an example of where that approach leads.
“I’ve seen the devastation on the reservations when you just hand everything to the Indians,” Jacobs said.
Taking It to Washington
Juneau hasn’t entirely rejected the Obama education agenda. She is a big fan of the $40 million, four-year federal grant to expand preschool in Montana, which doesn’t have any state-funded preschool. Both Obama and Clinton have both backed universal preschool.
Juneau has also backed the plan by Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, to provide state-funded preschool, although Montana GOP lawmakers so far have balked.
Before the debate on Oct. 5, Juneau visited the preschool program for 4-year-olds at the Skyline Center in Great Falls, which is in its second year and serves 112 students between its all-day service and two half-day programs through 10 certified teachers.
“If it were not for the [federal] grant funding, this program would not exist,” said Collette Getten, the program’s coordinator. The preschool gets about $450,000 in federal money for the 2016-17 year.
Perhaps with the election on her mind, Juneau responded warmly to what she sees with the preschool program and says Montana lawmakers’ opposition to expanded state-funded preschool comes down to two things: money and the fear that it would encroach on private preschool providers.
“Maybe we can take it to Congress,” she told the staff, when she toured the Skyline Center preschool program.
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2016 edition of Education Week as Montana Showdown as State Chief Seeks Seat in Congress