Sherri Ybarra made it official Monday morning: She will seek a third term as state superintendent of public instruction.
Ybarra announced her bid via email, less than three months before the May 17 GOP primary. She will join former State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield and former legislator Branden Durst on the Republican ballot.
No Democrat has announced for the post.
“Idahoans deserve to have a teacher’s voice as superintendent – not another politician,” Ybarra said in a news release. “Together we’ve made great progress and Idaho’s schools are on the right track. Today I’m running for re-election because there’s more work to do, and I believe that we can make Idaho a top 10 state in K-12 education!”
Ybarra narrowly won her first election in 2014, beating Democratic candidate Jana Jones by fewer than 6,000 votes to replace Tom Luna. In 2018, she beat Democratic challenger Cindy Wilson, by a slim margin of about 3%.
Incumbency means Ybarra will run with the benefit of name recognition, but it also means she’ll have to run on her track record.
In Monday’s news release, Ybarra touted several successes — including an increase in Idaho’s five-year high school graduation rate, even as the four-year graduation rate has fallen during the pandemic. She cited several victories on the school funding front, including increases for teacher pay and literacy — priorities of Gov. Brad Little and his predecessor, Butch Otter.
In Ybarra’s two terms as state superintendent, student outcomes have been a mixed bag. ISAT scores have inched upward by a percentage point or two each year, while K-3 reading proficiency has been sliding backward, even before the pandemic. Students have also missed at least 33 of 34 achievement benchmarks set by the State Department of Education for at least the first two years after those benchmarks were created, in compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. (See the full breakdown of Idaho’s progress toward those goals, here.)
Ybarra has grappled with her share of controversies, including public battles with other state officials — like last year, when she sued the Legislature for transferring some of her staff, and responsibilities, to the State Board of Education. As a reliable proponent of local control in education, Ybarra has repeatedly taken the approach of supporting districts’ growth over enforcing consequences for shortcomings. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she left most school-operating decisions up to local school districts to enforce.
Ybarra has elevated conversations around student social-emotional well-being, but she has struggled to win legislative support for that priority. In early 2020, House Republicans mocked a $1 million proposal for social-emotional learning.
Critchfield reacted to the superintendent’s announcement Monday morning, saying, “Ybarra has been on the campaign trail for months at the taxpayer expense,” and “this just formalizes what she’s already been doing.”
“This would be Ybarra’s third term and Idahoans are desperate for a vision and a leader,” Critchfield told EdNews by email. “The statewide support of our message provides the evidence that eight years was long enough. Parents are frustrated, educators are discouraged and businesses need skilled employees. Idaho deserves a leader that will meet the educational needs of the 21st century. It’s no time for a political victory lap.”
In a direct Twitter message to Idaho EdNews, Durst took aim at both his opponents.
“Critchfield and Ybarra are both establishment, moderates candidates,” Durst wrote. “They want to protect the system at the expense of parents and children. They have both had eight years to end Common Core, stop the infiltration of critical race theory and to advocate for real school choice. They’ve instead acquiesced to Ed Inc. I am grateful for the outpouring of support that I am receiving from conservative Idahoans who know it’s time for a real change in the state superintendency.”
Upon entering the primary, the incumbent trails both her challengers in the fundraising race. Critchfield has reported drawing some $211,800 and holds a $182,700 pot of cash on hand, while Ybarra has raised around $23,500 and holds $13,400 in cash.
Ybarra’s also edged out by Durst, who has reported $32,700 in fundraising, with $7,300 on hand.
If past campaigns are any clue, Ybarra could continue facing a fundraising disadvantage — but that hasn’t stopped her yet. In both 2018 and 2014, Ybarra won despite being far outspent by her Democratic opponents.