Analysis: Can Branden Durst win the superintendent’s race? It isn’t far-fetched

Branden Durst made good on one promise Thursday morning.

At the start of an Idaho Business for Education forum, the Republican state superintendent’s candidate said he won’t change his campaign message to suit his audience.

Mission accomplished. Durst said a lot of things the IBE didn’t want to hear. He said he opposed the all-day kindergarten bill headed to Gov. Brad Little’s desk. Durst said he has changed his mind on pre-K, because he doesn’t think the research makes the case for it. And he called out IBE for opposing a school choice bill on constitutional grounds.

Durst probably didn’t win many votes Thursday from IBE members, the state’s top CEOs. But he showed everyone exactly how he thinks he’s going to win the May 17 GOP primary: by running against all things Sherri Ybarra and Debbie Critchfield.

“There are two contrasting views of what our schools need. … There are those who believe we need to continue to double down on a system that isn’t working for a lot of parents. … And then you’ve got me, somebody’s who’s coming from the outside, who recognizes that, maybe we need to do things differently.”

Of course, Durst’s political reinvention is not news to anyone who has been paying attention. The former Democratic lawmaker has been courting Idaho’s hardline conservatives since he entered the superintendent’s race 14 months ago. Durst actually began shifting long before this race; he ran as an anti-establishment outsider in a 2018 Boise school board election, finishing a distant fifth in a six-candidate field.

A loss like that isn’t exactly a predictor of future success. But the superintendent’s primary is an entirely different race. Durst is making a blatant play — and, sure, critics will dismiss it as a cynical play — to conservative voters. But that’s the bloc that often decides closed Republican primaries.

It helps Durst’s election calculus that Ybarra and Critchfield are more or less playing to the same lane: moderate to center-right voters. And when both candidates play up their resumes — including Ybarra’s seven years as state superintendent and career in the classroom and Critchfield’s seven years on the State Board of Education — they reinforce Durst’s position as an outsider.

During Thursday morning’s forum, Ybarra and Critchfield managed a couple of mild digs at each other. After Critchfield pledged to push for a financial literacy course, Ybarra said the topic was already covered by state standards in economics. After Ybarra touted improvements in the five-year graduation rate — factoring in students who need more time to finish high school — Critchfield pointed out that Idaho’s four-year rates have declined. (They’re both right, by the way.)

Ybarra spent much of Thursday’s hour-long forum touting her teaching background and her record in office. It’s a nuanced case: She concedes that students have suffered learning loss during the pandemic, but says the state’s commitment to keeping schools open kept the gap from being even bigger. Some talking points are sketchy: She continues to lean on a 2018 U.S. News and World Report article that ranks Idaho No. 5 for college and career readiness, a suspect ranking that, more than anything, reflects the number of Idaho students who take the SAT.

Critchfield spent much of her time highlighting her credentials — her time on the State Board, her time as a trustee and employee in the Cassia County School District, and her work co-chairing Little’s 2019 K-12 task force. It’s a lengthy resume, but not an outsider’s resume. If anything, Critchfield leans into her experience, saying it makes the “problem-solving leader” the state needs. In most races, Critchfield would be the undisputed establishment candidate.

Granted, Durst isn’t running entirely as an outsider. He points out that he’d be the first former legislator to serve as Idaho state superintendent — following the conventional career arc of elected superintendents outside Idaho. “This job is bigger than just a classroom,” Durst said Thursday.

Running on a platform of parental rights and school choice, Durst gets to further distance himself from Ybarra and Critchfield. That became all the more evident when questions turned to private school tuition credits — and whether those should extend to religious schools.

Ybarra offered an emphatic no — pointing out that her job is to serve as superintendent of public instruction.

Like Ybarra, Critchfield said she doesn’t want to see money siphoned away from public schools. But she also said she isn’t opposed to allowing dollars to follow students, signaling her support of a private school tuition credit bill.

“I’m a yes and a no on this,” she said. “This is an unsettled issue in the state that needs some leadership.”

To Durst, school choice is the solution to all that ails education — from lackluster academic performance to overcrowded public school buildings. And it’s also the vehicle to tweak the education establishment.

Including IBE.

Durst took a poke at IBE for its testimony against an education savings account bill that died in the House Education Committee this month. He said IBE should not have labeled the bill as unconstitutional, when an attorney general’s opinion said the bill would survive a court challenge.

“Everything I’m proposing can be done,” Durst said. “I’d like IBE to correct the record and acknowledge that they misled the Legislature about that issue.”

Rod Gramer, the IBE’s CEO and Thursday’s moderator, pointed out that his group has a prominent lawyer in its corner: former attorney general and Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Jones. “We’ll just have to agree to disagree on that constitutional issue.”

Disagreeing, and playing the role of contrarian, fits right into Durst’s campaign. And closed GOP primaries have a way of rewarding contrarians. One, Janice McGeachin, was elected lieutenant governor in 2018. Now, she’s running an anti-establishment campaign against Little.

The industry leaders who make up IBE’s membership might not be looking for someone to disrupt the system. Hardline Republican primary voters are a different animal.

There’s nothing subtle about Durst’s election blueprint. And there’s nothing that far-fetched about it, either.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.

A deeper listen: Kevin Richert is interviewing primary candidates on his weekly podcast. Click here for the Debbie Critchfield interview; click here for the Sherri Ybarra interview. Branden Durst has been invited to interview.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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