Analysis: GOP education platform caters to (or kowtows to) conservatives

Conservative delegates veered the Idaho Republican Party sharply to the right last weekend.

The state GOP convention in Twin Falls was a summer music festival for the party’s conservative flank. Hardliners elected one of their own — outgoing state Rep. Dorothy Moon — as the party’s new chair. They adopted an anti-abortion platform language that provides no exceptions for a pregnancy that threatens the life of the mother. Delegates eagerly embraced public funding for private schools and sought to stamp out crossover voting in GOP primaries.

All the hits.

Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, was elected state GOP chair last weekend, less than two months after she lost the Republican primary race for secretary of state.

The convention illustrated one reality: The energy in Idaho’s GOP is clearly coming from the right. In this case, 700 or so voting delegates showed up at the convention in Twin Falls — a small sample, compared to the 282,000 Idahoans who voted in the May GOP gubernatorial primary.

But as hardliners push the party to the right, this could deepen the long-standing rift between conservatives and the mainstream establishment — a fight to control what has been, arguably, the most durable and successful state party apparatus in the nation. This intraparty battle might not make much of a difference in the November general elections, where Republicans figure to have a big advantage up and down the ticket. It will certainly shape the 2023 legislative session, when successful candidates will actually have to govern.

And education could be a big part of the fight — after delegates passed an education platform that caters to (or kowtows to) conservatives:

  • Delegates voiced support for “money following students to their parent’s school of choice.” They specifically endorsed education savings accounts — which could siphon state dollars into private school scholarships. Moon herself co-sponsored such a bill in 2022, which drew vehement opposition from education lobbyists, and died in the House Education Committee.
  • Delegates revisited the education culture wars, supporting “policy and financial measures to prohibit universities, colleges or public schools from incorporating social justice indoctrination theories.”
  • The platform calls for a parental rights law that asserts, among other things, parents’ rights “to determine their child’s health, safety and medical treatment including masks and vaccinations.”
  • The platform endorses direct election of State Board of Education members. Currently, seven of the State Board’s eight members are gubernatorial appointees; the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction automatically gets the eighth board seat.

The education platform is also notable for its sponsor: Branden Durst. Two months after failing to get his new party’s nomination for state superintendent, the Democrat-turned-archconservative has his fingerprints all over the GOP’s education agenda.

After the convention, Durst took a victory lap on Twitter.

“To those who expected me to go quietly into the night after I did not prevail in May, think again,” Durst tweeted. “My resolve is strong and it was further reinforced with the wins we achieved this weekend at the @IdahoGOP convention. This is just the beginning.”

In a statement, GOP’s state superintendent’s nominee Debbie Critchfield didn’t specifically say what she supports, or opposes, in the party’s education platform. But she made clear she doesn’t feel beholden to a document crafted by one of her primary opponents.

“During the primary election, I ran on a conservative platform that I believe in and appealed to the greatest portion of Republican primary voters,” said Critchfield, who attended most of the convention, but was not a delegate. “We look forward to working with leaders around Idaho to share our vision, which the Idaho GOP voters chose in May.”

Gov. Brad Little had even less to say this week. Responding to a request for an interview or a comment on the platform, Little instead sent a boilerplate statement discussing the constitutional mandate and “moral obligation” to fund education, touting his efforts to boost teacher pay and health benefits for school employees. Little’s statement made no reference to anything in the GOP platform.

For the record, and since it was hard to tell, Little attended the GOP convention Friday, and has reviewed the education platform, spokeswoman Madison Hardy said Wednesday.

There’s an inevitable tension between a party’s convention delegates, who expect fealty to the platform, and a party’s elected officials, who expect to be able to do what they ran on. And the platform from the GOP’s rank and file could exert some policymaking pressure on Little and Critchfield, if either or both win in November.

It’s hard to imagine Little leading a charge for direct election of State Board members, since this would strip away a piece of his power — but that is now what Little’s GOP formally supports. Critchfield, meanwhile, has tried to walk a fine line on school choice, saying she would like to bring together education groups to seek common ground on a private school tuition credit bill. This nuanced approach might not satisfy GOP delegates who unequivocally support education savings accounts.

It was a rough weekend for the GOP mainstream, and a big weekend for conservatives, including two who lost statewide primaries in May.

Recently hired by the Idaho Family Policy Center — a staunchly anti-abortion Christian lobbying group, which served notice last weekend that it also wants to push for publicly funded religious schools — Durst played a lead role not just on education but on the post-primary push against crossover voting.

Tom Luna

Defeated in the GOP primary for secretary of state, Moon soundly defeated former state superintendent Tom Luna in the race for state party chairman.

The Moon-Luna election is a great example of how political branding can change.

In 2012, voters resoundingly defeated what came to be known as the “Luna Laws,” and the author of the legislation became a toxic asset within his party’s mainstream. Last weekend, and a decade later, Luna sought re-election as state party chair. Seen as a defender of the mainstream and the status quo, he never had a chance with hardline convention delegates.

Now, the Idaho GOP is the party of Dorothy Moon — a Statehouse hardliner and unabashed believer in the 2020 presidential election “big lie.” If you want to map the bearings of the GOP’s rank and file, start there. And know that the rank and file will exert pressure on the debate over everything from abortion to education.

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

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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