John Eynon’s career path has taken several abrupt turns — from teaching music to serving as a U.S. Navy commander to working for major textbook publishers and back.
The Cottonwood high school teacher is planning his retirement from the classroom, while contemplating another career change. He is one of four Republicans seeking to succeed state schools superintendent Tom Luna.
Eynon says he knows what it takes to build a school system that engages students — but says his opponents also have that skill. He believes his experience in the textbook industry would help him work with vendors on Idaho’s behalf. He believes his military training in total quality management would translate to running the State Department of Education.
Eynon’s positions certainly differentiate him from the field.
- In a group of Common Core supporters, he stands as the sole opponent.
- He is skeptical of some of the 20 recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s education task force.
- He is bullish about boosting school budgets by increasing logging and natural gas development on state lands.
- He likens public pre-K to socialism — a hard line even by Idaho Republican standards.
Eynon is running on a ticket with several other conservative Republicans; several, like gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Russ Fulcher, are challenging established incumbents. While his is an open race, Eynon is running as an anti-establishment candidate.
A varied resume
Like many teachers of the Great Recession era, Eynon was on the wrong side of a budget crunch early in his career.
It was August 1979. Eynon, who holds an undergraduate degree in music education, was teaching in California. Nine months earlier, California voters had passed Proposition 13, a restrictive property tax initiative. Districts were reluctant to offer contract renewals to less experienced teachers, and at that time, Eynon had less than five years in the classroom. Newer teachers were encouraged to stick around until August, then apply for another year’s work.
As a young father, Eynon opted for something more stable — and that led to 17 years in the Navy. His career included three tours of duty at sea. During the Gulf War, he helped with the callup of Navy reserve units from the Southeast. Eventually, he says, his position fell victim to the Clinton administration’s military downsizing efforts; he retired in 1998 with the rank of commander.
By this time, the Philadelphia area native and his family had fallen in love with north-central Idaho; they had discovered the area while Eynon was stationed with the Navy in Oak Harbor, Wash. Working for several textbook publishers allowed him to do some of his work in the inland Northwest.
Most of this work was in sales, and in convincing local education stakeholders to adopt the textbooks he had to offer. “I was fairly successful at that,” he said.
Several colleagues vouch for Eynon on LinkedIn, a professionally oriented social media site. Said one, “I have to admit, I liked John better as a colleague, than as a competitor. As a colleague he was organized and well-spoken. As a competitor he was dependable, well-respected and feared. I would much rather have him on my team, as opposed to trying to compete against him!”
Eynon says he also got a glimpse inside the industry, and a perspective on its clout. He saw firsthand how publishers supported national education standards. “(It) was definitely in the best interest of the publishing industry.”
Classrooms and Common Core
Eynon has worked for the Cottonwood School District since 2007. But compared to his time working for publishers, Eynon’s work in Cottonwood schools is a closed volume.
He has declined media requests to meet at Prairie Junior-Senior High School, where he teaches music and drama. Eynon says he and school administrators agreed, before he announced his candidacy, to keep the school out of the political spotlight.
Principal Carrie Nygaard declined an interview request, deferring to district Superintendent Rene’ Forsmann. When approached by Idaho Education News, Forsmann’s email response was terse: “I am not interested.”
Eynon chalks it up to a disagreement over Idaho Core Standards. Forsmann supports the new math and English language arts standards, and has made Cottonwood schools available for regional training. “I appreciate the position I have put her in,” he said. “(She) is a very effective administrator.”
Eynon, however, is unrelenting in his opposition to the standards, implemented last year. He concedes that the standards have had no direct affect on his instruction. But the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests, aligned to Common Core, have had an effect. Even though Idaho schools are now field-testing the SBAC — the test won’t count until next spring — students are routinely yanked from his classes for test prep. “There has been a whole lot of emphasis getting these kids ready for it.”
While controversial, the standards have strong support from most Idaho education stakeholders, and enjoy considerable political backing. Eynon concedes that teachers are divided. He says he knows of one teacher who left the profession over the change, and now works as a hotel desk manager. But he also knows some teachers have embraced the change.
If elected, Eynon says he will first focus on getting stakeholders to work together and dump the SBAC, a computer exam that takes several hours to complete.
“I know it would be an area that would bring cohesiveness,” he said. “There wouldn’t be many disgruntled people out there.”
Running the department
Eynon won’t name names, but he has already thought about who he would recruit for his management team. He knows one Idaho district superintendent he would like to hire. He has an offer of volunteer help from one former staffer for Anne Fox, a Republican who was elected state superintendent in November 1994 and voted out after four turbulent years in office.
Here’s how Eynon would approach several issues:
School funding. Eynon says Idaho needs to boost per-pupil spending; only Utah spends less per student. But Eynon is endorsed of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Idaho — a conservative wing that wants to see taxes reduced, not raised. The key, he says, is boosting endowment payments for K-12, which now total $31.3 million a year.
Teacher pay. Eynon says Otter’s task force has recycled too many elements of the voter-rejected Propositions 1, 2 and 3. But he supports the group’s costliest recommendation: a $250 million teacher career ladder plan that he considers “substantially different” from the Proposition 2 merit pay plan.
Unions. Eynon belongs to Northwest Professional Educators, a Spokane, Wash., organization which bills itself as an alternative to teachers’ unions. But Eynon says he would want the Idaho Education Association to take a lead role in rewriting standards to replace Common Core, saying this effort would boost teacher morale.
Much of Eynon’s campaign loops back to Common Core, in some fashion. If we wins, he says it would represent a referendum on the standards. And he believes, gradually, states are pushing back.
“We have yet to see the precipice of this,” he said. “I believe we are going to see more of the dominoes continue to fall.”
- All of our stories on the superintendent’s race: click here.
- Coverage from last week’s KIVI TV candidate debate: click here.
- Coverage from Monday’s City Club of Boise forum: click here.
- Where Eynon and other candidates stand on Land Board issues: click here.
- Eynon’s third-party history: click here.
- Eynon’s website: click here.