Missed messages: Arntzen’s statements overshadowed by shooting joke

OPI leader undermines the very system she should be strengthening

November 11, 2021 5:52 am

Elsie Arntzen, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, walks into Parental Rights Education Action meeting at Crosspoint Church in Missoula, Montana on November 1, 2021.

In the understandable furor over Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen’s participation in a forum in which a lawyer jokingly suggested the remedy for any superintendent who advocated vaccination or mask mandates was to “shoot ‘em,” it was easy to miss some equally shocking rhetoric that wasn’t said as a joke.

You may recall that Arntzen has played a starring role in fomenting discord among parents as she’s showed up at rallies and demonstrations across the state, events aimed at making parents more upset and dissatisfied with local school board officials who have had the unenviable position of trying to guide public schools during these rocky and uncertain times.

You’d think Arntzen, a former elementary school teacher, would recall her days of policing the playground and remember to calm the situation, not egg on bullies.

Arntzen revealed at the meeting she’s coordinating with Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen for a way that parents can disregard any school district rules they don’t like. I bet she wouldn’t have appreciated that same advice when she was in the classroom. I can just hear a parent now: “No, Tommy. You don’t have to listen to Mrs. Arntzen. You just get up and go to recess any old time your little body needs a break.”

Sadly, when she was fanning the flames of discontent, Artnzen also spoke on another issue of pressing concern to her, critical race theory — an academic construct used by social scientists and historians to understand the persistent inequities that exist in this country on a systemic level. The theory is helpful to see how laws, policies or history may unwittingly or purposely affect some groups of color or minorities differently than other races or classes.

Admittedly, Arntzen has been unable to find an example where a lesson in Montana has become problematic, and I am not sure that many elementary teachers are foregoing multiplication flash cards for discussions about ways in which redlining housing programs have disenfranchised homebuyers of color.

Yet at the same Missoula parents’ meeting, Arntzen told audience members, “You can teach critical race theory. But you have to teach the other side, too. You can’t be biased when you teach.”

From a teacher that’s horrifying – on a number of levels.

First, a teacher isn’t some educational concierge or waiter that merely serves a buffet of ideas, all deserving of equal treatment. So, presenting all ideas as equal is problematic. Leeches are not the same as prescription drugs; and you can teach that two plus two equals five, but that will not make it correct.

And what is the other side of critical race theory? That people of color deserve to live in crime-ridden neighborhoods? Or the doctrine of separate but equal made some good points? Or, did Arntzen mean to imply that old false narrative about slave owners loving their slaves, and their slaves loving their masters? Is that the other side?

Meanwhile, Arntzen didn’t miss the opportunity to stir the pot against students who already struggle when she took aim at the transgender issue by equating the issue of masks with having “a boy in that girls’ locker room.”

Using the political hot-potato of masking and conflating it with transgender issues not only makes transgender students more of a target (if that’s possible), but it’s galling because her office has yet to give one instance of a male invading a girls’ locker room.

And when the superintendent had the chance to defend the hard work both schools and other state public health leaders have done when it comes to reopening schools in the midst of a pandemic, Arntzen instead took the chance to discredit their work, too. When parents told her they didn’t trust the COVID-19 numbers being reported by schools, despite having no evidence for that distrust, Arntzen said, “So how can you believe that math lesson? How can you believe that English book is the right book?”

Arntzen’s performance in Missoula was a masterclass that served to undermine the credibility of public schools, the same ones she is supposed to represent.

She cannot be standing up for parents’ rights because there are no parental rights that have been taken away recently. In other words, all the rights they have, they still have.

The real problem, instead, may be that parents would rather not go to the hard but honest work of schooling their own children, or discussing the uncomfortable ways even a wonderful state like Montana has not treated people of color kindly or justly.

To say that bigotry should be afforded equal time as studying the root causes of disparity represents a betrayal of the role teachers should regard as sacred. Teachers’ most important role is one of a guide, interpreter and contextualizer. They are not fleshy Google search engines that should present a list of answers, all seemingly equally without comment or critique. Quite frankly, Arntzen is arguing a certain intellectual socialism where all ideas should be afforded the same treatment.

And equating the struggles of marginalized transgender people with something as commonplace and common sense as masking is a stunningly callous misunderstanding of the challenges the LGBTQ community has faced and continues to struggle with; if only accepting each others’ identities was as easy as putting on a simple paper mask.

Finally, Arntzen was intellectually bankrupt when she rallied parents around the idea that if they doubt one statistic provided by a public health official or school district, then everything, down to the math lesson or the English book must be suspect. It seems the more likely answer to all of this political humbuggery is a continuation of her efforts to undermine local officials and spread a rot of the school system from within.

It’s not just that she’s making a distressed public school system weaker during a pandemic. It’s that when she’s done undermining it, it won’t be the parents or politicians who will pay. It will be our children who will be left with a system that was purposefully weakened from within not to help achievement or equality, but because Artnzen desires political fame and would rather use your kids’ education as a token in that battle with a tremendously uncertain future.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.