Public Instruction candidate Heitkamp calls for change on the campaign trail

Courtesy: Heitkamp Campaign
Courtesy: Heitkamp Campaign

A candidate for North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction says the state needs to get back to basics in the classroom and needs stronger leadership to give parents a voice in education. 

Jason Heitkamp served in the North Dakota State Senate for two years, as a Republican representing District 26.  His tenure ended in December of 2022 after falling short in his bid for re-election.  Currently residing on a family farm near Wyndmere, North Dakota, he was also a Richland County commissioner from 2010-2014.  If successful, he would supplant the incumbent, Kirsten Baesler, who has held the position since 2012 and is seeking a fourth term.  Heitkamp is a father of two, and a cousin of former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp.

Heitkamp says school board meetings in northwest North Dakota have been a big motivator for him to run.  Speaking to the McKenzie County Farmer, Heitkamp said the state needs better leadership, specifically when it comes to interactions between schools and the public.

“In Williston High School, transparency has fallen to the point where someone needs to step in.  Minot is almost the same level.  They were having a school board meeting in Williston, and they would not let the public address the school board, so they used Roberts Rules and a person stood up and yelled ‘point of order,’ and the school board basically stood up and walked out.  They didn’t cancel the meeting, they didn’t stop the meeting, they just basically walked out.  And then about a week later they said the next meeting was going to be virtual.  They have had police officers there that have escorted people out; people who wanted to speak and who had asked ahead of time to speak.  In Harvey recently, they were going to have a meeting about a $20.5 million bond issue, and they weren’t going to give time for public comment.  Fargo wants to spend over $600 million over the next 15 years.  We don’t see DPI involved in any of this stuff.  Maybe they are on the phone, but if I was involved in something like that I would be there. “

The North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction is a nonpartisan position, so candidates do not run as a Democrat or Republican, but they will often seek the endorsement of the state’s political parties.  Heitkamp says been critical of student test scores across the state, but says curriculum is the issue, not the teachers or the students. 

“First, I think we need to know how curriculum is set in the state.  I think a lot of people just say ‘go ask the local school board from district to district’ as they set the curriculum, but there has to be some kind of way that they’re being led along. I don’t want to make people mad, but the way it happens in this state is that the DPI (Department of Public Instruction) and the legislature set standards such as 24 credits to graduate, and the legislature can actually set curriculum which they did in the last legislative session when they passed a bill by Janne Myrdahl that they had to teach certain things about health.  It had to do with abstinence and things like that.  DPI can be directed by the legislature to implement policy as well.  But in the end the buck does stop with local school boards, and I’ve talked to a few different school boards to get an idea how they do this and sometimes they have a curriculum committee because curriculum is not necessarily just books.  When I was a kid everyone had a text book and everyone had a work book, and that’s not necessarily true now, and I was shocked to hear that if a teacher was teaching biology and he was a good fisherman and wanted to take the whole class down and show them how to catch fish and cut them up, that it could be a curriculum that is approved by the school board now.”

Heitkamp added that traditional methods of teaching are making a comeback in neighboring South Dakota, and that North Dakota would do well to consider these decisions.

“Years ago, we used to use flash cards, SRA cards, “Hooked on Phonics.”  And it was a big deal in the South Dakota legislature this year, but they had switched over to world language as their curriculum for literacy, and when they switched over, their literacy rate went right in the tank.  And usually what happens there comes here, and they wanted “Hooked on Phonics” back.  That was a big deal down there. “

He also says that that time-honored testing methods have been disregarded, and that may be affecting how North Dakota students are learning.

“When I was a kid we used to have spelling tests each week.  We had the lists on the back board and on Thursday you do the pre-test and on Friday you do the real test.  They don’t do that anymore.  They don’t have timed multiplication testing where you have 2 minutes to answer all the questions.  For a while they didn’t want to teach cursive writing.  How would you be able to read the founding fathers’ documents if you didn’t know how to write cursive or read cursive.  I heard from a parent that was beside himself because his daughter got a job, and he was going to take her first check to the bank, and he found out she didn’t know how to sign her own name. 

We need to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, and civics, and it would help to make sure those are being taught on a level playing field.  Right now the tests that are taken to score proficiency in the schools consists of 3 different tests and each test deals with a different grade level, so if I was going to do statistics on how our schools are doing in the state, and if one test was for seniors only, another one was for juniors only, and the other one was for sophomores only, which is the way it is, how do you regulate how the proficiency is doing because they’re not even the same test?”

Heitkamp believes that school districts need to have some flexibility on how to teach, but that there needs to be greater clarity and involvement from the state. 

“I would like to see a curriculum committee that’s set up across the state to pick curriculum for the schools and give leeway in that area, but not something that’s nilly willy, because since 2017 something has happened in our schools in North Dakota and it’s happened nationwide.  We have to stop this, because the students are suffering.  And actually, the teachers are suffering also.  I don’t believe the teachers are the problem, I don’t believe the students are the problem.  I believe this curriculum and how it’s picked and how it’s taught, is the problem.”

Other examples?

“Civics tests are something people have been talking to me a lot about.  In Century code, it actually says that a student has to pass a Civics test by 60% to graduate. I think that number is too low.  Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the civics test can be given over a time period of the entire school year, not just one test in one day.  So, if you’re given 2 questions a day, I don’t think that’s right.”

When Heitkamp was asked to clarify if he believes that testing requirements are too soft, he replied, “I actually believe that, right now.  I do.  I’m just going to say it and people can get mad at me if they want.  But I believe that the leadership has taken a bad turn since 2017.  This is the reason I got into this race.  I don’t believe any of the candidates running right now are going to be able to right the ship.  When I’m elected, I’m going to spend 2 days on the road going around to schools and working with the schools myself.  And they have 82 employees at DPI right now, so there is no reason that the schools aren’t talking to each other and working together and making sure the curriculum is doing the best for the kids.”

Heitkamp and Baesler will be joined by at least two other candidates.  Former North Dakota Homeschool Association Executive Director and Bottineau farmer Jim Bartlett has also announced his candidacy, as has Darko Draganic, a former United Tribes Technical College dean and University of Mary director of student retention.