State superintendent candidates take questions on education

Republican candidates for Idaho’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction are mixed about claims of indoctrination in the state’s K-12 schools, but each will work with local school boards on issues if elected, they told a group of trustees Monday.

State superintendent Sherri Ybarra, former State Board President Debbie Critchfield and former lawmaker Branden Durst answered questions during a forum hosted by the Idaho School Boards Association and moderated by Idaho EdNews managing editor Jennifer Swindell at the Grove Hotel in Boise.

The forum was part of the ISBA’s annual Day on the Hill Statehouse lobbying event. It marked the first time the Republican candidates gathered for questions ahead of the May 17 GOP primary. Roughly 75 trustees and other local leaders attended the event.

Ybarra announced on Monday morning her plan to seek a third term. Durst filed paperwork in Jan. 2021, and Critchfield announced a run in May.

Some highlights from Monday’s topics, which ranged from college go-on rates to concerns over CRT:

CRT and claims of indoctrination in schools

Ybarra said Idaho’s not a “scary example” of CRT being taught in schools, and that the term “means a lot of things to a lot of different people.” Teachers are fearful, she added, but “I will be the superintendent who has and will continue to investigate allegations.” So far as state superintendent, concerns brought to her attention have not constituted CRT, she said. But Ybarra compared concerns to bullying — “it happens,” she said, though she also questioned anyone’s ability to indoctrinate Idaho’s teens: “They’re not so easily persuaded.”

Critchfield offered a short response to concerns about CRT: “Parents are concerned, schools say it’s not happening and policy makers don’t know what to do.” But, she added, Idahoans don’t want an official who “changes the message” about the issue in different settings.

Durst said it’s not happening in every district or school, but it is happening in “pockets, usually in our larger districts.” Leaders need to be honest with parents, he added, and not “patronize” them over their concerns. “(Parents) know what they know, so we need to address concerns in a way that’s satisfactory to them.

Local control for school boards

Ybarra called herself a “staunch supporter of local control” and touted sending several concerns brought to her office over the years “right back” to local leaders, including superintendents, if they can address it. She may not always agree on the approach they take, she said, but that’s for them to decide.

Critchfield also touted her approach to leaving key decisions to local boards, including during the pandemic. She “advocated for leaving decisions up to trustees” when the State Board ordered schools to close for four weeks in March 2020.

Durst told those in attendance that local control is “important,” but that parents should be given more say over things like masks. He’ll “stand and fight for parents,” who “we need to get back to trusting again.”

Idaho’s college go-on push

Ybarra said not all kids want to go on to colleges, and Idaho needs more options to help them make decisions. COVID has also impacted students’ choices about life after high school. “Our job is to build a foundation to help kids make a decision for whatever career path they want to choose,” she said, adding that she has heard from Idahoans that the state has overemphasized college prep in recent years.

Critchfield touted students’ efforts to take advantage of increased dual credit offerings, but said there’s a need to probe ways to “reimagine junior and senior year to help kids work on things outside a formal education setting.”

Durst said some kids are “different,”and it was “wrong of the state to have a go-on goal in the first place.” He suggested trusting kids to decide what to do after high school and that academic, standard and CTE (career-technical educate) “tracks” could be a starting point for emphasizing different options. There are “a lot of barriers keeping kids from going from where they want to go,” he added.

The State Board and State Department of Education

Editor’s note: Last year, lawmakers voted to move IT and data management functions away from Ybarra’s SDE and under the umbrella of the State Board of Education. The move stripped away 18 full-time positions from the SDE — about a seventh of Ybarra’s staff — and slashed $2.7 million from her office budget. Read more here

Ybarra said a “good working relationship” exists between her department and the State Board, but “going along to get along doesn’t always work.” She stressed three “separate, equal branches of government” and no rift between the SDE and State Board in recent years, though there has been “occasional divisiveness.” “Once in a while gotta throw an elbow to get things done,” she added.

Critchfield said “healthy disagreement is good,” but it can become an unhealthy use of our time. She also argued that Lawmakers moved responsibilities from SDE because “they didn’t have confidence in the SDE.” She added: We’re going to have disagreements but need to have a honest relationship with people.

Durst called these issues “a distraction” and said people should “stop worrying” about what bureaucrats think. “What we’re really seeing is a huge number of parents who feel like no one’s listening to them,” he added.

Career-technical education

Ybarra said districts and charters must recruit CTE teachers and think out of the box in communities where that might be difficult. She pointed to what she views as successful efforts in the St. Maries School District.

Critchfield acknowledged CTE staffing issues, but said facility issues are also a problem for the state’s rural school. Outside the Treasure Valley, she added, it’s “nearly impossible” to provide access to tools and recruit people to oversee the programs. “Kids still want it,” she said, “but may not have access to it.”

Durst argued that CTE could be more accessible in smaller communities if districts were allowed to work together to provide it. He pointed to the small and rural Payette and Weiser districts, which could “share staff and facilities to get things done.” The current K-12 funding model also allows bigger districts to “poach” personnel from smaller ones to sustain CTE programs, Durst said.

Parents and trustees working through the pandemic

Ybarra, a trustee at Idaho’s Gooding-based school for the deaf and blind, said boards and parents need to be willing to “go back to the drawing board,” meet on weekends, during lunch breaks and hold emergency board meetings to weather pandemic interruptions. “Get ahead of it, have an open conversation,” she added. Parents also have to be included in the decision making process.

Critchfield echoed the need for parental communication: “A three-minute testimony isn’t validating for parents,” she said. Communication is key, and parents need to feel like they have a say.

Durst reiterated the need for parents to make a decision. “If they want masks, they should do that. If not, they should do that.”

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday