James Vandermaas, candidate for Congress

Editor’s note: A wide-open and critical election year is looming in Idaho in 2018. This is the 10th of a periodic series of interviews with candidates for state and federal office — with an emphasis on education topics.

The federal government can play a role in making schools safer, by offering guidance and help to local school officials, says congressional candidate James Vandermaas.

But after spending a career in law enforcement, the Eagle Democrat is not sold on one school safety idea floated by President Trump: arming teachers. Idaho law already puts this decision in the hands of local school boards, but Vandermaas says the approach simply puts more guns in the schools, and places a greater burden on educators.

“I’m dead set against it,” Vandermaas, 60, said in a recent interview. “We’re expecting them to be accurate, when they’re frightened to death.”

The Republican 1st Congressional District race has attracted a bigger crowd of candidates — and more money. Vandermaas, meanwhile, is running in a more low-key Democratic primary on May 15. His two primary opponents, Christina McNeil of Boise and Michael William Smith of Post Falls, have raised no money for the race, according to the Federal Elections Commission.

Vandermaas attended the student-led “March for Our Lives” protest at the Statehouse March 24, and said he stands in 100 percent support of the student demonstrators. Vandermaas says he supports balancing Second Amendment rights against “common-sense gun safety legislation,” including background checks.

Vandermaas disagrees with the White House on several education issues.

For one, he says he would push to make the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program “an actual law with a path to citizenship.” DACA protects students and other young undocumented immigrants from deportation, covering an estimated 3,100 people in Idaho; President Trump has pushed to eliminate the program.

Vandermaas also disagrees with the Trump administration’s proposals to siphon more than $1 billion of education funding into school choice programs. He’s also unimpressed with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and her advocacy for private and charter schools. “I think she’s in over her head, and she’s in there with a specific purpose.”

Outgoing 1st District Rep. Raul Labrador has proposed eliminating the U.S. Department of Education in full, and several Republicans looking to succeed Labrador like the idea. Vandermaas said eliminating the department would be a “tremendous mistake,” jeopardizing Idaho’s $264 million a year in federal education funding.

Idaho’s relationship with the feds changed considerably in March. After months of review — in Idaho and Washington, D.C. — DeVos finally approved Idaho’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Vandermaas said he was unfamiliar with the ESSA process or the state’s ESSA plan.

Vandermaas proposes one higher education-related initiative, which he calls “Scholar-Quest.” Under the plan, students would be able to attend college for free, funded through tax-deductible business contributions to a scholarship fund. Scholarship recipients would be required to perform community service after graduation. Vandermaas says the plan would help employers find the workers they need, while cutting into the nation’s $1.3 trillion student debt load.

“There’s so much untapped potential at this point because so many people are undereducated,” he said.

In addition to working in law enforcement, Vandermaas started several small businesses. He is making his first run for public office, and says he is focusing on education, expanding health care coverage and keeping federal lands under federal jurisdiction.

“It’s quite frankly where I think I can do the most good,” he said.


Congressional candidates:

Russ Fulcher: ‘I’m not a slash-and-burn kind of guy’

David Leroy: ‘We are making false promises to ourselves in many quarters’

Luke Malek: ‘We need every dollar that we are putting into education’

Christy Perry: ‘We need to break the cycle of poverty’

Michael Snyder: ‘A little flame has started. “Can we fan it into a fire?’

Gubernatorial candidates:

Tommy Ahlquist: ‘It’s creating that clarity’

A.J. Balukoff: ‘The thing we haven’t done is listen to the educators’

Raul Labrador: ‘If we’re going to take some of the credit then I think we need to take some of the blame at the governor’s office’

Brad Little: ‘We have an obligation to explain how important education is today’

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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