Analysis: Convention illustrates the deepening divide within Idaho GOP

At the state GOP convention last weekend, delegates endorsed platform language that says Republicans “do not support using taxpayer funding for programs beyond high school.” (Photo courtesy Logan Finney, Idaho Reports)

While Republican delegates debated a seismic shift in education policy Saturday, Idaho’s Republican state schools superintendent was a spectator.

A nonvoting attendee at the GOP convention, Debbie Critchfield could only watch as delegates called for defunding Idaho’s higher education system. Not that Critchfield — who doubles as a member of the State Board of Education — was exactly a disinterested observer.

“I was above the area where the delegates were seated and people, during it, (were) looking at me … kind of like, ‘What is this? Does this mean what I think it means?'” Critchfield said in an interview Tuesday.

There is no better metaphor for the yawning gorge between Idaho GOP’s mainstream political leaders and the hardline party activists who called the shots at last weekend’s Republican convention in Coeur d’Alene.

Idaho Republican Party Chairwoman Dorothy Moon

From outside the convention’s metaphorically smoke-filled rooms, it’s impossible to know exactly what GOP delegates thought they were voting for. That’s because most convention events were closed to the news media. Party chair Dorothy Moon, re-elected to a second two-year term Saturday, told Clark Corbin of the Idaho Capital Sun that she considers the Idaho GOP a “private association.”

That may be so, but this “private association” exerts considerable weight in the public policy debate. As it did on higher education.

The new language amends a section of the platform that reads, “We strongly support professional technical and continuing education programs that provide career readiness and college preparation.” The amendment adds that Republicans “do not support using taxpayer funding for programs beyond high school.” (Republicans inserted similar wording to a platform plank supporting education “to develop a well-trained workforce.”)

Is this language a broadside pointed at Idaho Launch — Gov. Brad Little’s new and popular $70.8 million postsecondary scholarship program, which has divided Statehouse Republicans? Or is the language directed at higher education more broadly?

The author of the platform amendment explained his objectives to Idaho Education News Wednesday.

“Launch is only the most egregious example of taxpayers being forced to fund postsecondary schooling,” said Scott Tilmant of Caldwell, responding to a series of emailed questions from EdNews. “I believe the government should not be involved in ‘higher education’ at all. I do believe that continuing education is important, but not with taxpayer money. The individual should be making that decision.”

Tilmant made an argument that has surfaced before in the Launch debate: The state’s Constitution mandates that Idaho fund K-12 schools, but is silent on postsecondary education. Federal and state subsidies “obscure the true cost” of postsecondary education, Tilmant said, and the publicly funded schools drive up tuition costs.

“There are many private organizations, charities, and foundations that commit millions of dollars in scholarships,” Tilmant wrote. “Why do we need to take money from hard-working taxpayers on top of that?”

State superintendent Debbie Critchfield. (Carly Flandro /Idaho EdNews)

From the gallery, Critchfield said she was witness to a debate that ran the gamut of higher education topics. Delegates brought up diversity, equity and inclusion programs, a reliable hot-button topic within GOP circles. Launch also was a talking point — although an attempt to narrow the platform language to Launch failed. A host of higher education issues all came to a head, she said.

“I didn’t walk away from that discussion and that vote throwing my hands up in the air, and saying Republicans don’t care about education,” Critchfield said.

But if the platform language means what it explicitly says, then it calls for defunding higher education. Idaho’s four-year schools will receive $365 million in state tax dollars next year. The community colleges will receive nearly $64 million. The State Board will put more than $25 million of state tax dollars into the Opportunity Scholarship and other college financial aid. Then there’s $70.8 million for Launch.

That’s north of half a billion dollars, for starters.

But if Idaho were to defund higher education, career-technical training and workforce development programs would almost certainly fall to the K-12 system, Critchfield said. And that, in turn, would force a rewrite of the K-12 budget.

In written statements Wednesday, Little and Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke took identical issue with their party’s convention delegates. The higher ed platform language, they both said, does not reflect the opinion of the “vast majority” of Idaho Republicans.

Both doubled down on higher ed.

“My commitment to strengthening the economy by training the next generation does not end at high school graduation,” Little said. “The state has helped generations of Idahoans receive their post-high school college education, including my children and me.”

Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke touts Idaho Launch at an event at Middleton High School in March. (Darren Svan/Idaho EdNews)

“Our state colleges, universities, and technical education programs are more than schools – they are investments in the future prosperity of the Gem State,” said Bedke, who sat in on Saturday’s convention events as a nonvoting attendee. “And if we want our kids to choose to stay in Idaho, we cannot take away the state’s support for these educational opportunities; otherwise, they will leave and look for them elsewhere.”

A party platform only has the power importance that candidates and voters attach to it. Do candidates follow the platform with unfailing fealty? Do voters expect strict adherence to the platform — and punish candidates who stray from the party line?

And on the other side of the coin, if the platform strays too far from popular opinion, do candidates feel like they have a license to ignore it?

“You’re going to see a real differentiation between the party and elected legislators,” Rep. Stephanie Mickelsen, R-Idaho Falls, told Logan Finney of “Idaho Reports” during the convention.

Mickelsen knows a thing or two about a platform fight. In March, Republicans in Mickelsen’s legislative district censured her for failing to support the GOP platform. Last month, Mickelsen easily secured a second term in office, winning a three-person primary with 60% of the vote.

The battle over what passes for mainstream GOP thinking didn’t start in Coeur d’Alene last weekend, and it won’t end any time soon. In a guest opinion Thursday, Moon put a stake in the ground, on behalf of her convention’s rank and file.

“It is not extremists who are in charge. It is the people,” she wrote. “What is so extreme about saying that the government should only spend tax dollars where constitutionally required?”

It’s not nearly so simple, of course. Republican delegates endorsed a monumental change in the education Idaho pays for — and doesn’t pay for. That only amplifies the disharmony within the GOP.

More about the platform from Laura Guido of the Idaho Press.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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