By EMERALD GILLERAN The Billings Outpost
State Superintendent Denise Juneau made a pitch for school funding and for raising the age at which students can drop out when she was in Billings last week for the Montana State University Billings Summer Institute on “Transforming Perceptions.”
Ms. Juneau, who spoke at the conference, stopped by The Outpost afterward with the state Office of Public Instruction’s communications director, Jessica Rhoades, to discuss legislative priorities for the upcoming session.
Ms. Juneau said that with the last legislative session and the federal stimulus bill, Montana was given $62 million extra for grades K-12.
“In the end we didn’t gain anything because the money was a one-time spending type of deal,” Ms. Juneau said. She said that going into the next session, Montana will start out $72 million in the hole.
“Schools can’t function without money though,” she said.
Ms. Juneau said that OPI wants to educate legislators on how the budget works and what they are stepping into in terms of money.
“People say that politics is all local,” Ms Juneau said. “Well, so is education.”
She was encouraged that Billings voters recently passed two out of three school mill levies after a series of mill levy defeats.
“It was a nice surprise to see Billings step up and pass the last mill levy,” Ms. Juneau said. “Schools are needy right now, and to see Yellowstone County impose a tax on themselves to improve the quality of education is just great.”
Ms. Juneau explained that for most kids, there is nowhere else to go except public education. The main goal of OPI is to ensure school funding and make sure that schools can operate. She said the state budget for her office always looks like a big number, but the money funnels through OPI and into schools statewide.
According to Ms. Juneau, dropout rates are increasing, and right now the law says students can legally drop out of high school at age 16. One of her legislative pushes this session will be to raise that age to 18. The last time the minimum age was raised was in 1921, she said.
Statistics show that last year Billings Senior High School had a dropout rate of 7.5 percent, Billings West at 3.9 percent, and Billings Skyview at 5.6 percent. High school dropouts earn on average $9,000 less a year than high school graduates, Ms. Juneau said.
Raising the mandatory school age would cost even more money, she said, but said no estimate of the cost had been calculated yet.
OPI would like to take the big community effort in Missoula, “Graduation Matters Missoula,” up to the state level for “Graduation Matters Montana.” This model would be a keystone piece for the next legislative session, Juneau said.
“Students need their high school diploma at a minimum,” she said.
Part of this plan would be to help students be more college and career ready. For instance with the ACT test, OPI would like to push for Montana to pay for every student to take the test, and to make it a more comprehensive test by adding a writing test.
“It’s a way for us to track where students are at,” Ms. Juneau said. “It’s a score that every student could rely on in the future, and it could be incentive for them to start aiming toward college or to see what area they need to improve on.”
She expressed concerns that the Obama administration is tightening curriculum and teacher qualification requirement, which could make things hard for rural states like Montana. Under President Obama, she said, the federal government is pushing for a “No Child Left Behind Act on steroids.”
“The agenda is difficult to swallow,” she said. Ms. Juneau said that a one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work in Montana. “It can be fixed, though,” she said.
Ms. Juneau said that the emphasis under No Child Left Behind on math and reading is so overbearing that other areas making up a well-rounded education, such as art and world cultures, are lost.
“The issues are more intrusive, and less understanding of rural areas,” she said.
Ms Juneau said the state is pushing for Montana to have “frontier status” because a lot of schools here are more rural than what the rural standards are.
“The one good thing about No Child Left Behind, is the use of data,” Ms. Juneau said. “At the state-level we are able to track students, not by their name but by a number. It’s a much better way to see how students are doing as a whole.”
Ms. Juneau talked a bit about an initiative called “Montana Schools of Promise.” She explained that it’s a partnership between schools, communities, and OPI to improve the state’s most struggling schools.
“Rural schools are struggling because funding is based off enrollment,” she said.
The four schools involved now are all on reservations. According to Ms. Juneau, these schools are in poverty, have a history of high dropout rates, and there is a conflict of language for many students.
“Some of these students are caught in the middle of English and their home language, and never really learn one or the other fully,” she said.
On a cheerier note, Ms. Juneau said that Montana generally is doing well on test scores at a national level.
“There is a myriad of reasons that students drop out,” she said. “If a student drops out, though, their chances at jobs are less and graduating is needed for each individual to be an asset to society.”
David Crisp contributed to this report.