On Wednesday night, three educators were comfortable talking education.
And a little less comfortable talking politics.
Three of the Republicans seeking to replace retiring State Superintendent Tom Luna talked about their classroom and administrative experience, and tried to make the case that their educational resumes from American Falls, Melba and Mountain Home will translate to the larger stage of running the State Department of Education. It was an academic exchange, but not a dry one.
And here, I’ll have to admit to a little bit of bias. I was one of the panelists for Wednesday night’s debate, and Idaho Education News was a partner in the debate, aired on KIVI in the Treasure Valley and KSAW in the Magic and Wood River valleys. That said, I thought it was a good debate, a good exchange. No fireworks — perhaps because John Eynon, a Cottonwood teacher running against the Idaho Core Standards, wasn’t there to parry with the other candidates, who all support the standards.
What you heard instead were three experienced educators offering an informed, thoughtful assessment about the state of the state’s schools. American Falls principal Randy Jensen, Melba district superintendent Andy Grover and Mountain Home administrator Sherri Ybarra all spoke passionately about their careers in public education.
Ybarra talked about spending 20 years in the schools, with “feet on the ground … not removed from the education of our students.” Jensen, a 25-year principal of American Falls’ William Thomas Middle School, spoke fondly on seeing second-generation students going through the school. Grover said he has received Facebook messages from former students urging him on.
There was a reason why we asked the candidates to talk first about their education backgrounds — then followed up with a question about how they’d navigate the politics of the state superintendent’s job. That was all part of the plan, on our part. (I don’t want to burst anybody’s bubble, but debate questions are pretty carefully scripted beforehand.)
I think we all wanted to get at the duality of the job: the balance between educational expertise and political acumen. After all, one of the lingering criticisms that has dogged Luna for eight years is his lack of educational experience. But in the same way that it is possible for an elected state superintendent to be a little too much of a politician and not enough of an educator, it is possible to be too much of an educator and not enough of a politician. That was a criticism that followed Luna’s predecessor, Democrat Marilyn Howard.
One task for the four Republican candidates — and for the Democrats’ candidate, former Howard deputy Jana Jones — is to show how they would handle the political end of the job. (It’s a question one of my fellow debate panelists, Idaho Statesman reporter Bill Roberts, explored in an article this week.)
Grover and Jensen both talked about collaboration, and drawing on their education backgrounds to build coalitions. Ybarra said she would navigate the politics, but not because she considers herself a politician. “I don’t think people are looking for a political leader. They are looking for an education leader.”
Perhaps. But there is no denying the political overtones of the job.
Ybarra, for example, wants the state to take a closer to look at pre-K, after it gets its K-12 house in order. That would require convincing fellow Republicans who are steadfastly opposed to publicly funded pre-K — and that would be no small political challenge.
The candidates spoke about the need to put money into teacher professional development and salaries, two recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s education reform task force. Jensen spoke of one good teacher in American Falls who is leaving the profession after five years — because he isn’t making enough money to pay off outstanding student loans. Grover touted the career ladder, and its promise of starting teacher pay of $40,000 and high-end salaries of $60,000, as a way to ensure a “liveable” wage.
But paying for this career ladder could require more than $250 million. The 2014 Legislature made a down payment just shy of $16 million. Finding the rest will put the next state superintendent in the middle of a debate over spending priorities and, perhaps, tax policy. That’s politics.
On Wednesday, none of the candidates served up a plan to pay for higher teacher pay. But to be fair, we didn’t ask them. There’s only so many questions you can ask in an hour.
I suspect we’ll hear more about money and politics as this primary unfolds, and as we move into the general election.
See for yourself: Wednesday’s debate will air at 4:30 p.m. Saturday on KNIN, Channel 9 in the Treasure Valley.
Video: Debate coverage from Jake Melder of KIVI, including reactions from Jones.
And more video: More quotes and more talking points from the candidates Wednesday night.