Editor’s note: A wide-open and critical election year is looming in Idaho in 2018. This is the sixth of a periodic series of interviews with candidates for state and federal office — with an emphasis on education topics.
Russ Fulcher would just as soon get the feds out of the education business. The congressional candidate considers the local school board “the highest elected office in the land.”
But the former legislator knows it will be tough to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education — partly because states have grown dependent on federal dollars and federal support.
“I’m not a slash-and-burn kind of a guy,” Fulcher said. “It is incredibly difficult to unwind a bureaucracy.”
Fulcher, of Meridian, is one of three prominent Republicans running in the open 1st Congressional District race. Former attorney general and Lt. Gov. David Leroy of Boise and state Rep. Luke Malek of Coeur d’Alene are vying to succeed outgoing U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, who is running for governor. Labrador has endorsed Fulcher.
After spending 10 years on the Senate Education Committee, Fulcher says he is sensitive to the state’s reliance on federal education dollars. Idaho receives $264 million a year from the U.S. Department of Education, covering special education, programs for high-poverty schools and other initiatives.
The Trump administration has proposed cutting the federal agency’s budget, while shifting some of the remaining money into school choice programs. While Fulcher agrees with moving toward school choice, he has also seen the “fruitfulness” of federal teacher training programs that are on Trump’s chopping block.
Fulcher takes some comfort on one federal education initiative, the rollout of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Idaho is one of dozens of states waiting for the feds to review and approve its plan to comply with the federal law, the successor to the No Child Left Behind law. ESSA does seem to shift some control back to the states, he said, and if the feds are going to be involved in education policy, the new law is a step in the right direction.
Fulcher distances himself from the White House on one controversial policy — repealing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act. In Idaho, DACA protects some 3,100 undocumented immigrants from deportation, and Trump’s plan to repeal DACA could leave students and workers in legal limbo.
Fulcher does not want to see Idaho families split apart by deportations, in the wake of a DACA phaseout. “You’ve got to have some allowance on that front, and some measure of compassion.”
Fulcher believes Trump’s rhetoric is resonating with many Americans — and despite the controversies swirling around the administration, Fulcher believes Trump would be re-elected by a wider margin if he were on the ballot again this year. But Fulcher says he does struggle with Trump’s political style. Given that style, he says, it should be no surprise that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has become such a polarizing figure.
“Look at her boss,” Fulcher said of DeVos, a billionaire and high-profile charter school advocate. “So much of it is a question of style.”
Fulcher ran for governor in 2014, positioning himself as a conservative alternative to incumbent Butch Otter. He ran second in a four-way race, collecting 44 percent of the vote.
Fulcher had announced plans to run again for governor in 2018, before shifting into the race for Congress.
As a congressional candidate, Fulcher is running on a theme of fiscal conservatism. He says the nation needs to rein in its rising federal debt, which is crushing economic opportunity. And Fulcher says the states could better pay for education, health care and transportation if they are given more control over federal lands — even though a federal study suggests that the cost of land management would exceed the benefit.
“Idaho has got incredible wealth … and it’s under our feet,” he said.
MORE READING FROM THIS SERIES:
Tommy Ahlquist: ‘It’s creating that clarity’
Raul Labrador: ‘If we’re going to take some of the credit then I think we need to take some of the blame at the governor’s office’
Brad Little: ‘We have an obligation to explain how important education is today’
David Leroy: ‘We are making false promises to ourselves in many quarters’
Luke Malek: ‘We need every dollar that we are putting into education’