Tom Luna was elected as Idaho’s superintendent of public instruction partly because of his ideas for reforming education. He was re-elected four years later, partly for his accomplishments.
Luna had rough moments, starting with the resounding rejection of his Students Come First proposals (“Luna Laws”) by Idaho voters. But there was no question about his abilities as a public speaker and his command of issues. Communication skills served him well whether he was before an editorial board, a business group or a legislative committee.
Yet, if Luna’s successor, State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, has her way, someone with Luna’s qualifications would not be allowed to even run for the office. According to a story by Clark Corbin in Idaho Education News, Ybarra is proposing legislation that would require candidates for the office to hold an Idaho administrator’s certificate and graduate from an accredited college or university. Luna had no administrative experience before running for office and his only working experience in Idaho education was sitting on the Nampa school board.
Ybarra says her proposal was based on feedback from education professionals.
“Many educators feel it is important to have someone leading the state who has been in their shoes, understands the hard work they do, and has the education credentials to not only understand their needs, but to also best support them,” Ybarra said in an email statement.
“I feel passionately about education, as do all educators throughout the state of Idaho, and it is ultimately about the kids,” she said. “Because kids are of utmost importance, it is vital to many educators that the individual leading the state, supporting teachers and students to achieve, has the educational experience and understanding of how decisions made at the state level effect administrators, teachers and students at the local level.”
Of course, it doesn’t take an administrator to have passion for education; Luna had plenty of that. He brought far more to the table as a candidate than Ybarra, who surprised herself by winning the Republican primary last year.
Ybarra makes a mistake by assuming, as others have done, that she was elected to represent the views and wishes of educators. The superintendent, as with other state constitutional officers, is elected to represent the taxpayers and the education system as a whole.
She thinks a superintendent should have professional requirements, as the attorney general does. But the attorney general’s job is not to represent lawyers and judges. Teachers and administrators have associations and leaders to represent their views, or even lobby the Legislature. The superintendent’s office is the one outlet available for taxpayers, parents and patrons.
Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, for one, opposes Ybarra’s idea.
“I think we should have more options, not fewer,” he said. “How about letting the voters decide it?”
Luna, the “non-professional,” managed to strike a nerve with a lot of voters, and he has some accomplishments to show for his eight years in office – which he listed before leaving office.
In 2007, for instance, only 26 percent of Idaho schools were meeting academic standards. That number has almost tripled, and Idaho’s eighth grade students score in the top 10 in reading and top 15 in math nationally. He pushed for increased accountability, verifying the accuracy of data received from the districts. Millions of dollars have been saved by identifying students that had been double-counted and double-funded. School choice, a favorite issue with some Republicans, was expanded during Luna’s administration. The number of charter schools doubled in eight years, and nearly 20 percent of Idaho’s children attend the school of their choice. His administration opened the door for upgrading technology in the schools and installation of the broadband network.
Luna’s ideas often put him at odds with teachers and administrators, who tend to prefer more conventional strategies. Ybarra’s proposal for limiting the field of candidates is a recipe for maintaining the status quo.
In reality, Ybarra’s proposal probably is not needed. There are not many people who would want the job without a solid administrative background. But Luna was an exception and, in many ways, Idaho’s education system is better off for his leadership.
Idaho’s election system would be worse off by accepting Ybarra’s cookie-cutter standards.
Chuck Malloy is a native Idahoan and long-time political reporter and editorial writer. He is a former political editor with the Post Register of Idaho Falls and a former editorial writer with the Idaho Statesman. He may be contacted at: [email protected]