Superintendent candidates verbally battle for GOP nomination

State superintendent candidates Debbie Critchfield, Branden Durst and Sherri Ybarra verbally battled for the Republican nomination Monday night, energetically clashing on school policy and trading one-liners in an hour-long debate broadcast across the state.

The three GOP primary contenders put their campaign messaging on full display during Idaho Public Television’s Idaho Debates. Ybarra flexed her seven years in office, Critchfield struck at Ybarra’s lack of leadership, and Durst, again, portrayed himself as an outsider in the field.

“I believe we need to get government out of the way and let parents lead as God intended,” Durst said.

The debate saw:

  • Durst defend his conduct during a profane exchange that occurred after a legislative committee and decry the Senate’s decision not to hear a bill that could have included jail time for librarians who disseminate “material harmful to minors.”
  • Ybarra and Critchfield, who was president of the State Board of Education early in the pandemic, defend their roles in responding to the pandemic.
  • The trio split on issues from critical race theory to backsliding early literacy test scores.

The same was the case for early literacy funding, a hot topic in education politics this year.

From open to close, Critchfield questioned Ybarra’s strength of leadership, arguing that the superintendent has played a back-seat role in securing increased funding for early literacy and more from the Legislature.

“Who is it that is driving education?” Critchfield rhetorically asked, crediting Gov. Brad Little, and downplaying Ybarra’s role, in locking down a $46.6 million increase in early literacy funding from the Legislature this year.

Notably, Ybarra had requested $39.3 million for full-day kindergarten programs, a smaller predecessor to Little’s $46.6-million ask.

Opposing the literacy funding boost, now signed into law, Durst echoed critical lawmakers, who said increased early literacy funding would cause the shuttering of half-day kindergarten programs for families who want them.

GOP superintendent candidates square off in the Idaho Debates on April 25, 2022. Courtesy Idaho Public Television

Durst, a former Democratic state senator, repeated his support for a failed bill that would have allowed parents to spend tax dollars on private school tuition through education savings accounts.

“I believe that we should have the public schools competing with private schools for money and for students,” Durst said.

“With some study” Critchfield said she would support such a proposal if “we’re not defunding our public schools” and “it could not come at the expense of our rural schools.”

Ybarra repeated a hardline stance that she’s made on the campaign trail, opposing any tax money toward private school tuition and saying her opponents are “voucher supporters” to the vocal opposition of Critchfield.

Things turned testy at times. At one point, as Ybarra touted an increase in the number of charter schools in the state, Critchfield interjected, pointing out that Ybarra isn’t on the state charter school commission that authorizes new charters.

Ybarra shot back, “Excuse me. Like in a third-grade classroom, we teach our students not to interrupt. I was speaking and you can have your turn in a moment.”

The debate closed with stump speech-style closers and final blows that were sprinkled with political overtones.

“On May 17, you’ll get your final chance to do something you’ve wanted to do for a long time, which is say ‘Let’s go Branden,’” Durst said, playing on the insult of President Joe Biden.

Critchfield in her closing remarks made an apparent dig at Ybarra’s use of “fuzzy data” to defend her record, and added, “It’s not about political rhetoric.”

Ybarra ended with, “Like the kids say, please vote for Sherri in the primary.”

The candidates will debate again Tuesday night at 6 p.m. on KTVB, the last joint appearance they have planned before the May 17 primary. The debate will also air on the Treasure Valley news station’s website.

While the superintendent’s candidates will debate twice, contenders in other statewide offices won’t ever square off. Some have refused to debate or reneged on commitments to debate, including Gov. Brad Little and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin in the governor’s race; state Rep. Priscilla Giddings of White Bird in the lieutenant governor’s race; and incumbent Rep. Mike Simpson in his congressional race.

There aren’t any debates scheduled on the Democratic side of the superintendent’s race, where former Idaho Education Association President Terry Gilbert is unopposed. The Republican nominee will face Gilbert in the general election in November.


Blake Jones

Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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