PROFILE: Jones joins race to push for new education direction

Idaho’s superintendent of the year Chuck Shackett is backing Jana Jones, because he says the stakes are too high not to.

Jones at BSU
Jones speaks to a group of high school and college students last week on Boise State University’s student union.

Shackett, who leads eastern Idaho’s Bonneville Joint School District, said he has known and respected Jones for years, while Republican nominee Sherri Ybarra has not reached out to him or made significant efforts meeting educators or voters across eastern Idaho.

Jones and Ybarra are vying to replace outgoing Tom Luna as state superintendent of public instruction – a job that entails overseeing the state’s largest budget, implementing State Board of Education rules, playing politics with the Legislature, overseeing the state’s 115 school districts and charter schools and spearheading education reform and accountability measures for the next four years.

Shackett trusts Jones so much he tried unsuccessfully to hire her a few years ago to run Bonneville’s special education programs.

With a controversial tiered licensure proposal on the table, a related career ladder pay plan in the works, 20 education task force recommendations waiting to be implemented and hot debates over funding levels, Shackett said he wants a superintendent who can be effective from day one. With the departure of key Luna staffers – including deputy chief of staff Jason Hancock, assessment director TJ Bliss and communications director Melissa McGrath — the next superintendent must be able to reshape the department.

Shackett trusts Jones because of her previous experience as chief deputy superintendent under Marilyn Howard. Jones also worked under two Republican school chiefs, Jerry Evans and Anne Fox.

“We need someone to go in to the state department and have enough clout with educators and administrators throughout the state that they convince them to leave their contracts – or not renew current ones – and go sign on to be a part of a new team,” Shackett said. “Jana would be the one out of the two candidates who could actually have the experience to go in there, set up the State Department of Education and be able to hire people.”

Jones says her experience counts and separates her from Ybarra.

“I know what’s good out there, I know what’s not working,” Jones said. “I’ve been consistently and thoroughly working in public education my entire career.”

It all started in first grade

Jones was born and raised in Idaho Falls, the oldest of five children.

On the campaign trail, Jones mentions several influences, but, time and again, she points to her first-grade teacher from Idaho Falls, Victoria Goodman.

Jones said Goodman inspired her to become a strong leader and imparted a love of education from an early age. The two have stayed in touch throughout life.

Goodman, who retired after teaching for 46 years, described Jones as “an exceptional child.”

Goodman still refers to Jones as “Jana Lee,” including her middle name just as she did in first grade.

“I’ve had a lot of students go into the field of education, and I have been proud of all of them,” Goodman said. “But Jana Lee has gone further and done more.”

Goodman – like Shackett – pointed to Jones’ experience as chief deputy state superintendent as an important factor.

“Jana Lee has that work experience under her and learned all the ins and outs and the needs she would have to have,” Goodman said.

Professional background

After graduating from Skyline High School and earning her degree in special education from Utah State University, Jones returned to Idaho Falls to teach special education at Linden Park Elementary School.

After teaching children with disabilities in child care and earning her master’s degree, Jones founded the Progressive Day School in Idaho Falls with her sister.

The school, which still exists, offers preschool and child care and was one of Idaho’s first early childhood centers to incorporate students with disabilities and special needs into classrooms with their peers. Jones has since turned it over to a nonprofit, but each of her children and grandchildren attended the center.

Jones went on to earn her doctorate degree and continued her focus on early childhood education and special education.

She worked as a regional special education consultant for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and worked on early childhood education initiatives under former Gov. Cecil Andrus.

She later became Idaho’s full-time director of special education, a regional consultant under Evans and Fox, and finally, Howard’s chief deputy.

Jones would back Boise Democratic state Rep. Hy Kloc’s pre-K pilot plan, but says pre-K should never be mandatory.

“We really need to be very specific and I intend to get the kind of data legislators need to see (on pre-K),” Jones said. “I believe Idaho data is essential. Hearing national data does not move them.”

After Jones narrowly lost the state superintendent’s race to Luna in 2006, she became a director with Virginia-based MAXIMUS, a for-profit education company that offers consulting, education software, response to intervention programs and curriculum materials.

Ybarra has criticized Jones for her work with MAXIMUS, but Jones strongly refutes Ybarra’s claims that she is sitting on the sidelines.

Jones has been promoted to vice president with MAXIMUS, and she says the job allows her to work on curriculum and special education programs at school in places as diverse as New York City and Colorado.

“It has been a continuous learning process – learning how to understand contracts better, which is part of the role of state superintendent – working with outside vendors from both sides of the table,” Jones said.

Jones says MAXIMUS has never contracted with an Idaho school in her time – eliminating any potential conflicts of interest.

If Jones wins on Nov. 4, she said she will call MAXIMUS immediately and work on a transition plan.

During her career, Jones has won Idaho State University’s College of Education Outstanding Educator of the Year award and the A+ Friend of Education Award from the Idaho Education Association.

Ready to run

The reason Jones decided to run was to unseat Luna and push for a new education direction.

She made her decision in December. Plans changed in January, when Luna announced he would not seek re-election – leading to Ybarra’s ascension within the Republican Party.

“My biggest fear is right now we have the same group of people as governor, legislators and superintendent with the same thoughts and direction for education,” Jones said. “What that has done is drive us to the bottom.”

Elements of Jones’ platform include:

  • Supporting Common Core as higher standards, but assessing the standards’ effectiveness and making changes as necessary and not tying too much to standardized testing results.
  • Pushing to restore school funding to prerecession levels reached in 2009 by boosting operations funding for districts.
  • Attracting, retraining and supporting quality teachers, which includes putting the brakes on the tiered licensure proposal until changes are made and support becomes widespread.
  • Backing the 20 recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education.
  • Changing the tone in education to elevate the profession and celebrate success while striving for better results.