State Board looks to play a more active role in the legislative session

With the new legislative session at hand, State Board of Education members will be focusing on taking a more active, partnership-type role with the Legislature, President Debbie Critchfield said.

Critchfield, who was elected president of the State Board in April, has been hinting at tweaking the State Board’s roles and procedures for several months. In July, for example, Critchfield, said she wanted the State Board to be more strategic and deliberative.

More of those plans came into focus this week with the opening of the 2020 session.

“The Board has a commitment to be more present as rules and legislation are presented,” Critchfield told the House Education Committee on Wednesday. “We’ve got highly trained people to walk you through things, but (State Board members) want to set more of the context as to how we arrived at our decision.”

The distinction is subtle, but important and involves the appointed State Board members who set policy taking a more active role.

In recent memory, State Board members have relied on their paid staffers (particularly chief planning and policy officer Tracie Bent, executive director Matt Freeman and chief communications and legislative affairs officer Mike Keckler, among others) to handle the day-to-day policy work at the House and Senate education committees. During those years, it was pretty rare to see State Board members in attendance or testifying during routine committee hearings, although past President Linda Clark and Critchfield certainly did speak at, and follow, high-profile meetings.

Going forward, Bent, Freeman and Keckler will still handle the daily heavy lifting.

But Critchfield said she and the other State Board members will be more present and active to talk about the bigger picture, the reasons behind why the State Board pursues the education policy it does.

“We want to be more engaged to the level that we feel more like a partner, rather than an audience, as to what’s happening at the Capitol,” Critchfield said.

Critchfield didn’t spell out a specific number of days she plans to be at the Statehouse or the number of meetings State Board members plan to attend this year. Instead, she said they will all watch the agendas closely and work on strengthening relationships.

State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, far right, and State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield meet with Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, and John McCrostie, D-Garden City, on Wednesday at the Statehouse.

Critchfield also pointed out that time and distance will be a limiting factor for her. She lives in Oakley and works for the Cassia School District (being a State Board member is an unpaid position). But with members scattered across the state and new State Board member Shawn Keough’s experience as a longtime state senator, Critchfield said they will employ a team approach.

“With my distance getting here, depending on what the docket looks like for the agenda, in as much as I can be here, that is the commitment I made to not just the Board but to the House and Senate education leaders,” Critchfield said.

Although the session is only three days old, Critchfield has already started backing up her words with action. Two State Board members, Critchfield and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, have been fixtures at the Statehouse throughout the opening week.

  • Both attended Gov. Brad Little’s State of the State address Monday.
  • Both met with 2020 Idaho Teacher of the Year Stacie Lawler on Monday.
  • Critchfield was spotted walking University of Idaho President Scott Green and Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton through the Statehouse on Monday.
  • Both Critchfield and Ybarra attended the House Education Committee meeting Wednesday.
  • Ybarra attended the first Senate Education Committee meeting of the year Wednesday.
  • Ybarra is scheduled to sit down with Little on Thursday to discuss budgets.

“As a Board we are very pleased we’re able to step forward and say we can do this,” Critchfield said.

Accountability starts at the top

For 2020, Idaho Education News is making a yearlong commitment to track Gov. Brad Little, State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra and State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield to gauge their performance, level of engagement and success on education issues. We will announce more details about that project next week.


Clark Corbin

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