As Idaho finds itself at a crossroads for education, Debbie Critchfield is ushering in a new generation of leadership at the State Board of Education.
Although she is young enough to be the daughter of some legislators or State Board members, don’t mistake Critchfield’s youth for naivete or inexperience.
In April, her peers elected her president of the State Board.
The next month, Gov. Brad Little named her co-chair of his K-12 Education task force, Our Kids, Idaho’s Future.
She’s a fighter who has beaten breast cancer.
She’s shown a willingness to face controversial issues head on. Almost immediately after being elected president, she called on colleges and universities to hold the line on tuition increases.
Then, this month, Critchfield spoke out about the simmering Public Charter School Commission controversy, blasting what she described as hurtful comments that were “demeaning to the individual charter schools and the communities they serve.” She also called for increased training on Idaho’s open meeting law.
“She is a strong woman, she is a survivor and she knows how to get things done,” said Rep. Wendy Horman, who has known and worked with Critchfield for more than a decade.
Critchfield says her youthfulness offers her a different perspective. She raised four children who went through Idaho’s public school system, the youngest graduating in May.
That experience opened her eyes as a leader and policymaker. She knows how stressful senior projects can be, what it takes to graduate and how a college visit can become this tangled mix of intimidation and inspiration.
Don’t even get her started on the FAFSA, the cumbersome Free Application For Federal Student Aid that gives prospective college students and their families heartburn and nightmares. Although Critchfield is a college-educated woman who helped write Idaho’s plan to comply with federal education laws, she struggled to help her own children fill out the FAFSA.
That experience taught her that things have to change in Idaho — and the rest of the country — if state leaders want to send more students to college and increase the education attainment of its young people.
“I look through the lens of my experience as a parent and what my children are doing, not because I want to tailor things to my children, but as an example of what students in our education system experience,” she said.
Background and education experience
Critchfield grew up in San Diego before moving to Utah to attend Brigham Young University, where she earned a degree in political science. Although she originally planned to go to law school, Critchfield’s plans changed after she met her husband, David.
He’s an Idaho native, born and raised in Oakley, and he had every intention of going back to farm with his family’s operation.
Soon after relocating to Oakley, Critchfield took a job as a substitute teacher. Initially, she did it to help some teacher friends. But she soon found she loved substitute teaching at the high school and working with teenagers.
She worked as a sub for about seven years, gaining a respect and admiration for students that she carries with her today as a policymaker.
“I like teenagers,” Critchfield said. “If you listen to them and let them talk, it’s not surprising what they tell you. The teen today is full of opinions and ideas.”
Her experience as a sub sparked an interest in other areas of education, which led to Critchfield running for a seat on her local school board. In 2001, she won election to the Cassia County School Board, where she served for 10 years. During her tenure, she helped lead the district through the Great Recession amid state budget holdbacks.
“That was devastating,” Critchfield said. “But that experience teaches you about the budget process and school finance.”
After her service on the board ended, the district’s new board approached her about becoming Cassia County’s public information officer. She took the job in 2013, and she still holds the position today.
The ascent to the presidency
Although she has been president since April, Critchfield’s been on the State Board since July 2014, when former Gov. Butch Otter first appointed her. Otter reappointed her in 2018.
Although she had experience on the Cassia County School Board and the Idaho School Boards Association’s executive committee, Critchfield said the learning curve was tremendous.
Although friends encouraged her to put her name in for an opening on the State Board, Critchfield admits she didn’t fully understand what the board did, the scope of its responsibilities and the higher education roles the board plays.
“It took me two to three years to understand fully what I was doing and how the system works,” she said. “If you wanted to make changes, you didn’t just decide on a Monday and make the change Thursday. There is a rulemaking process that is months long.”
As soon as he appointed her, Otter gave Critchfield some advice.
“You’ve got a strong K-12 background, but what I’d like you to do is take the opportunity in the next 12 months to make a personal visit to all the higher education institutions in our state. That’s a critical part of all that we do,” Critchfield remembers Otter telling her.
Now that she’s a State Board veteran who has ascended to the presidency, Critchfield is ready to call for changes. Rather than simply move through an agenda and vote on whether or not to approve a coaching contract or a new academic program, Critchfield wants the board to be more strategic and deliberative during open sessions.
“Over the last couple years, our board has felt our meetings have a tendency to be more transactional, that we don’t spend a lot of time actually talking about the strategy to actually get us to our goals in an open public setting with every board member there,” Critchfield said.
Beginning in August, Critchfield said she will look at instituting changes to focus on strategy. Instead of cramming three days’ worth of work in to two days’ worth of agendas, Critchfield will call for more discussions and a more deliberative State Board.
And, as for her personal priorities, she lists an increased focus on student achievement, student growth, higher education access and affordability and an expansion of career-technical education programs.
Forging relationships and looking ahead
Critchfield knows the policymaking and education landscape is changing.
In the past year, a new governor and four new college and university presidents have taken office.
There is a new chairman of the House Education Committee.
The Legislature is expected to take another run at rewriting Idaho’s public school funding formula in early 2020.
Our Kids, Idaho’s Future is expected to issue education reform recommendations by November.
And, this summer, Little is expected to appoint two new members to the State Board.
In order to accomplish anything meaningful, Critchfield knows relationships will be key.
She’s making plans to meet with members of the House and Senate education committees before the session convenes in January. And once the session does convene, Critchfield said State Board members themselves, not just staffers, will play a more active and visible role at the committee level.
“This next session there are a handful of things our board will (propose),” she said. “As board members, whether it’s myself or someone else, we want to be present for that.”
Horman thinks Critchfield’s leadership, education experience and communication skills can make a difference.
“There is an opportunity ahead to try and align the systems to focus on student outcomes, and I think she is a leader for that kind of conversation,” Horman said.
Critchfield counts Horman as a longtime colleague who she knows she can work with. But she knows it will take relationship building, hard work and a lot of people working together to make progress on Idaho’s biggest, most stubborn education goals, including increasing childhood literacy, improving access to higher education and moving the dial on Idaho’s 60 percent goal.
“I don’t have every answer, and certainly every great idea doesn’t have to come from me,” Critchfield said. “But I do feel the skills I bring to the board are listening and enjoying working with other people to find solutions. And, at the end of day, I like to work hard to bring about good things.”