Critchfield talks funding, elections and mental health at Boise forum

From higher education decisions to bond and levy elections to student mental health, state superintendent Debbie Critchfield touched on many of Idaho’s most pressing education topics in a forum for the City Club of Boise Monday afternoon.

Here’s what she had to say.

Elections and school funding

Over $700 million was on the line during the May 16 elections. For some districts, like Coeur d’Alene, school bonds and supplemental levies are a matter of keeping the doors open.

To Critchfield, that signifies an outdated funding formula.

“We have pushed off the conversation about how we fund facilities,” Critchfield told City Club members Monday. “The facilities issue, specifically, is one of those defining lines for districts who are able to provide opportunities for their students. If your town is willing to support a levy, a bond, a plant facilities (levy), you’re able to do things that another district isn’t able to do.”

Education leaders and lawmakers need to look at the obligation to provide a “general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools,” as outlined in the Idaho Constitution and examine the disconnect between supplemental levies and what school districts are asking for, said Critchfield. “I don’t believe textbooks are supplemental, but for many of our districts, that’s on their levy.”

“We need to modernize our funding formula…that’s the simple answer,” she said.

University of Phoenix acquisition

The State Board of Education unanimously endorsed the University of Idaho’s $550 million plan to acquire the University of Phoenix, a for-profit online institution that serves around 85,000 students — and has a history of deceptive advertising and enrollment practices. The State Board approved the plan on May 18.

As a voting member of the board, Critchfield cast her own vote in favor of the acquisition plan. At Monday’s event, she highlighted a changing higher education landscape and nationwide trends as reasons behind her vote.

“There are less students that are interested in the traditional models that we have now,” she said to City Club members Monday. “How do we add to what we have?”

And Critchfield believes the rewards outweigh the risks of taking on the online university — and its checkered history. The University of Idaho, she said, researched and investigated the University of Phoenix before bringing any ideas to the State Board. Respect for and trust in U of I President C. Scott Green also factored into Critchfield’s decision.

The superintendent views the acquisition as a “great opportunity” to fill a niche education need not only for Idaho students, but nationwide.

Life after high school

Critchfield touched on one of her top priorities as superintendent: preparing students for life after high school.

“We do a very great job getting our students to college,” Critchfield said. “Anything outside of that, we’re not so great.”

During the 2023 legislative session, Critchfield championed a $50 million bill to enhance career technical education in rural regions of Idaho, and a piece of legislation requiring high schoolers to take a financial literacy course. Both pieces of legislation will go into effect July 1.

Critchfield wants to see movement by August.

She’d like to see CTE grant project applications that are driven by local needs in rural communities, and she wants 2024 graduates to leave with a better understanding of how to buy a car, apply for loans and use a credit card.

And she wants a review of the high school graduation requirements — a conversation she plans to initiate with the State Board in June.

“We haven’t looked at those in 30 plus years, and we keep scratching our heads and thinking ‘We’re getting more money into the system, how come we’re not getting better results?'” Critchfield said.

Student mental health crisis

Critchfield’s new behavioral health working group is undertaking the task of determining the state’s role in providing mental healthcare in schools.

Districts statewide are dealing with an influx of behavioral issues and mental health crises among students. And Critchfield wants to normalize training teachers how to handle mental health-related situations — just like they learn to handle fire drills or earthquakes. Trauma-informed professional development and teacher training opportunities, Critchfield said, could help.

“We’re not trying to turn our educators into therapists,” Critchfield said. “That’s not their job. But there are…tools that we can provide, there are strategies that can be in place at a local school level to de-escalate situations and to manage very stressful situations.”

For situations that go beyond school grounds, Critchfield wants districts to communicate with parents, referring “out and up” to local resources and behavioral health professionals.

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Reporter Sadie Dittenber focuses on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley. You can follow Sadie on Twitter @sadiedittenber and send her news tips at [email protected].

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