Beyond ads and endorsements: where the candidates stand on education

In the final weeks of a historic $10 million primary — punctuated by clashes over TV ads and endorsements — Idaho’s gubernatorial candidates haven’t talked much about education.

And the candidates in a low-budget race for state superintendent have had no means or opportunity to seize the spotlight.

As Tuesday’s party primary elections approach, it’s easy to forget that the next governor will have the chance to chart Idaho’s education policy for at least four years — starting by writing education budgets that account for 60 percent of state spending. And the state superintendent gets an early say in the budgeting process, a seat on the policy-making State Board of Education and jurisdiction over a State Department of Education with a staff of about 140 employees.

So, what are the candidates saying about education? And since primary races often hinge more on personalities than policy, where do they differ? Let’s take a closer look.

Governor, GOP

There are a few distinctions between the Republican candidates.

Boise physician and developer Tommy Ahlquist and U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador flatly reject the idea of state-funded pre-K. Lt. Gov. Brad Little’s position is more fluid; he has said he opposes state-funded pre-K, but is open to early education block grants that could allow local districts to pursue optional pre-K.

They also differ on the hot-button issue of Idaho’s Common Core standards. Labrador vows to dump the standards. Last year, Ahlquist told the Associated Press that he opposed the standards — but since then, he has said he was disappointed with the Common Core rollout, and has been noncommittal about the standards themselves. Little supports the standards.

Beyond these topics, the three Republicans more or less have their eye on the same end point: making sure Idaho schools prepare students for college or careers. The difference lies in how they would try to get there.

Ahlquist talks in general terms about shaking up the status quo — and in the latest round of fundraising reports, he received a $2,500 contribution from former state superintendent Tom Luna, a polarizing figure during eight years in office.

Labrador has co-sponsored a bill to mothball the U.S. Department of Education, and talks about moving decisionmaking to local school officials and away from “bureaucrats in Boise or Washington.”

Little unveiled his education platform in February. While the plan includes a few new wrinkles — such as a $40,000 minimum teacher salary and a signing bonus for rural teachers — many of his ideas echo the recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s K-12 task force of five years ago. Like the task force, Little wants to build on dual credit programs for high school students, and a mastery-based learning model that allows students to move through the K-12 system at their own pace.

The Republicans differ more widely on tax and spending policy — and this, in turn, could have a more profound effect on education budgets.

All three candidates want to repeal the sales tax on groceries. And even after the 2018 Legislature scaled back income tax rates, the three Republicans want further income tax cuts.

Ahlquist and Labrador are also talking about spending cuts — even though most Idahoans aren’t clamoring for them, according to a Boise State University survey released in January.

Ahlquist has talked about cutting $100 million in spending in his first 100 days in office. Even though education accounts for 60 percent of the state budget, he insists that education will not be touched by these cuts, and has also suggested that the $100 million might simply be shifted around within the budget.

Labrador has proposed the most aggressive tax and budget plan. He wants $1 billion in sales and income tax relief. But he also says the state will cover these cuts by eliminating tax loopholes — something legislators have long been reluctant to do.

Labrador also wants state agencies to write budgets with a 5 percent base spending reduction, or explain why it can’t be done.

K-12 will receive $1.8 billion in 2018-19, after about a $100 million spending increase. Potentially, a 5 percent cut comes to $90 million.

Governor, Democrats

Here, the differences are even more subtle.

Longtime Boise School District trustee A.J. Balukoff and former state Rep. Paulette Jordan of Plummer both say Idaho schools are underfunded, forcing local districts to rely on short-term and unpredictable supplemental property tax levies. Both opposed the 2018 tax cuts, saying the $125 million could have been used to reinvest in schools. Both are ardent pre-K backers — which might put them in line with public opinion, but would put them on a collision course with a reluctant Republican Legislature.

The candidates’ biggest disagreement centers on charter schools. Balukoff says charter schools have failed to deliver on their promise of innovation, but after 20 years, he acknowledges charters are in Idaho to stay. Pointing to charters in Moscow, in her old legislative district, Jordan says charters fill niches in Idaho’s school system.

But like many primaries, the Balukoff-Jordan race hinges on intangibles. So it is here on education topics. Jordan has been forced to answer questions about why she has sent her two sons to private school in Washington state. Jordan hasn’t said whether her children will attend Idaho schools if she is elected.

Superintendent of public instruction

Beneath the all-encompassing shadow of the governor’s race, the state superintendent’s race has struggled to get attention. And when the candidates have shared a rare spotlight — at an April 10 Idaho Education News forum and an April 27 Republican debate on Idaho Public Television — the candidates haven’t clashed much on the issues.

GOP challenger Jeff Dillon has questioned incumbent Sherri Ybarra’s leadership style, but his priorities really aren’t all that different. He wants to boost the state’s graduation rate to 90 percent — it’s at slightly under 80 percent, and stagnant — and he would like to see 20 percent of schools launch a mastery-based program within four years. But while Dillon questions Ybarra’s effectiveness in office, the Wilder district superintendent hasn’t offered details on how he would hit his milestones on grad rates or mastery.

Democratic candidates Cindy Wilson and Allen Humble are aligned on issues; on more than one occasion at the Idaho Education News forum, Humble echoed Wilson’s comments.

Instead, their biggest difference comes down to background. Wilson, a teacher at Boise’s Capital High School, cites her classroom experience, as well as her work on the Otter K-12 task force and the state Board of Correction. Humble, a Boise retiree from the health care industry, takes an outsider’s view, often talking about systemic problems in the school funding system.

More reading: Still studying up for Tuesday’s elections? We have you covered. See how the superintendent’s candidates responded to our questionnaire. And go to our elections page for in-depth articles on the candidates for governor, state superintendent and Congress.

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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