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The ‘Change Agents in the Education System’ for This Candidate: Her Parents

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 27, 2016 5 min read
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Earlier this week, we highlighted one of the most interesting congressional races in the country when it comes to education: The attempt by Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau to become the first Native American woman to be elected to Congress.

Juneau, a Democrat, is seeking Montana’s at-large congressional seat. She’s running behind in the polls—by a lot or a little, depending on which poll you look at—and is losing the fundraising game to her opponent, Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican who’s wrapping up his first term in Washington.

A skeptic of many (but not all) of President Barack Obama’s signature education initiatives, Montana’s chief is running on her rejection of Washington’s education agenda as well as the state’s increasing graduation rate. However, that signature accomplishment isn’t an outlier in the grand scheme of things—the graduation rate has been rising nationwide as well. Juneau was first elected to the state’s top K-12 post in 2008 and re-elected in 2012.

There’s not a huge precedent for Juneau’s attempt to go from state superintendent to Congress.

Since 2000, at least four others who were serving or had served as state K-12 chiefs have run in congressional elections—all of them were Democrats. Only one was successful: former Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina, who served as the Tar Heel State’s schools chief before being elected to Washington.

Nancy Keenan sought Montana’s at-large congressional seat in the House in 2000 also after serving as the state superintendent. But Keenan lost that year to Denny Rehberg, a Republican.

‘The Dominant Culture’

Juneau has carried on a family legacy in education and politics. Her father, Stan Juneau, was at one time the Browning schools superintendent. He has been active in Native American educational issues nationally. (Denise Juneau spent much of her childhood growing up in Browning and attending the schools there on the Blackfeet reservation.) Meanwhile, her mother, Carol Juneau, also worked in Browning schools before serving as a Democratic state senator.

Stan Juneau wrote a history of Native American education in the state for the Montana education department back in 2001 that was updated about four years ago. Here’s what he had to say about the changing face of Native American education in Montana:

It was simple when Indian people were left to educate themselves using a time-proven model developed over thousands of years. It became complex because of the education process imposed over the past five hundred years from the dominant, non-Indian society which has tried to force American Indians to adopt the dominant culture. It is complex when the American model determines the outcomes of teaching and instruction; it is complex when a government system determines the curriculum and standards for learning.

When she’s talking to voters, Denise Juneau frequently cites her skepticism of top-down federal programs. In fact, she rates Obama education policy just a 3 out of 10, although Montana did adopt the Common Core State Standards. And Juneau’s a big fan of the U.S. Department of Education’s support for additional preschool.

Stan Juneau thinks some of the influence he had on his daughter wasn’t necessarily due to a dramatic moment or glamorous work in Browning schools.

“I think she saw us being change agents in the education system, getting up, going to work, putting in long hours, hours you don’t get paid for, being part of the decision-making group with the schools,” Stan Juneau said.

And it’s easy to see a strong connection between her parents’ work in education and her specific emphasis on increasing graduation rates in Montana.

Her mother Carol, who also worked in federal programs in Browning schools, said she worked hard to keep children from dropping out. It’s particularly important, he said, in Native American communities often beset by drug, health, and other socioeconomic issues.

“If you take a group of kids that haven’t graduated from high school ... That’s where you find the poverty rates. That’s where you find all the issues that we need to find some solutions to,” Carol Juneau said.

As our longer print story notes, Juneau highlights the decreasing dropout rate of Native American students on her watch as one of his biggest accomplishment when it comes to educating that group of children, although their dropout rate remains the highest in the state among student subgroups.

For an in-depth and award-winning look at Native American education, check out our colleague Lesli Maxwell’s stories on “Education in Indian Country” from 2014.

Poverty and Assistance

Although Juneau thinks Obama’s education policies in many instances were designed with big urban districts in mind and not a rural state like Montana, she told us she does like the administration’s focus on poverty, which impacts all communities in essentially the same way.

“When you have those four components of poverty anywhere in the country, you’re going to have schools that really struggle, students that really struggle, and communities that really just need a lot of assistance,” she said in an interview. “That goes for our inner cities and our reservations.”

Juneau plays up her work to put local communities at the front and center of her tenure as Montana chief. For example, as part of her Graduation Matters initiative, individual districts decide the best strategies for increasing graduation rates (including those that can start as soon as elementary school) and which local nonprofit organizations and businesses to partner with. And there are no state-level consequences or interventions attached to these efforts, Juneau pointed out, because she doesn’t want “to do things to” communities, but work with them instead.

By contrast, she sees a more proactive role for her state and for government in general when it comes to issues like teacher recruitment. Juneau praised one bill from Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, designed to help the recruitment of teachers in Native American communities.

“Our little towns cannot recruit and retain [teachers] right now,” she said. “Young people coming out want the amenities like they get in a bigger city.”

As for members of Congress she looks up to? Juneau highlighted Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., and Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn.

And one final thing: At an Oct. 5 debate between Juneau and Zinke, as well as Libertarian Party candidate Rick Breckenridge, the Montana chapter of the American Association of University Women released responses from Juneau and Zinke to policy questions. Several of them pertain to education issues like Title IX, vouchers, and student loans. Check out their answers below:

Education Week Library Intern Teresa Lewandowski contributed research for this blog post.

Photos: Stan and Carol Juneau, the parents of Montana Superintendent Denise Juneau—both were educators in Browning, Mont.; Denise Juneau visiting students at Rose Park Elementary in Billings, Mont., earlier this month. (Photos by Andrew Ujifusa)

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