The No. 2 guy in Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ office visits the Gem State, and Idaho’s top education official – State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra – was nowhere to be found. Not even in the airport’s baggage-claim area.
If Vice President Mike Pence were to visit anywhere in Idaho, you can bet that Gov. Brad Little would be there to greet him, along with any or all members of Idaho’s congressional delegation. In Ybarra’s world, Mitchell Zais – DeVos’ chief deputy – might as well be the nation’s vice president. Building relationships with a top education official never hurts.
Zais had a busy day, as reported by Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News. He visited One Stone, an independent high school in downtown Boise, then followed with a tour of Elevate Academy, a new charter school in Caldwell. Both are funded through grants from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, and that money doesn’t go to just any school. As Richert reports, One Stone has gone from 30 students in 2016 to 121 students today. Elevate Academy opened this fall with 315 students (sixth through 10th grade), with an eye toward expanding.
“One of the things we want to highlight is the notion that one size does not fit all, Zais said during a roundtable discussion at One Stone. “There’s lots of different kinds of schools, beyond the traditional one.”
One Stone and Elevate Academy are just two examples, but they aren’t the only ones. Zais’ visit to Idaho was part of a nationwide tour to focus on options beyond the traditional schools – although he made a point with Idaho Education News that traditional schools are a good fit for most students.
Zais hardly was talking about radical ideas. For decades, school choice practically has been a national anthem for Republicans who have long complained about the lack of options for education. Ybarra would have been a welcome voice in the roundtable discussion, perhaps talking about school choice along with innovative approaches to make public schools more relevant in today’s world.
So, why wasn’t Ybarra there? What was she doing that day that was so important that she could not meet with the education secretary’s right-hand man? Her spokesperson said Ybarra had a scheduling conflict, but wasn’t sure what the superintendent was doing that day.
Good lord. Did she break a leg and go to the hospital?
“No. I would have known about that,” the spokesperson said.
In recent months, I’ve defended Ybarra in the face of criticisms that she doesn’t attend enough meetings with legislators or the State Board of Education … or that her car is not parked in the assigned space for days, or weeks, at a time. In my view, if her car is parked in Boise every day, then she’s not doing her job. A superintendent’s time is better spent away from the bureaucratic landmines – visiting schools, talking with educators and promoting education in general. She has an army of staff people who will take notes at meetings, and plenty of managers to do the office grunt work.
But being “too busy” to meet with the deputy secretary is a head-scratcher. Schedules can be revised, even on short notice. I can only imagine the conversation in Ybarra’s scheduling meeting.
Staffer: “The deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education is coming to the state on Sept. 16. I’m not sure how important this is. He’s going to be visiting an independent high school and a charter school, so it really has nothing to do with us. Besides, Betsy DeVos is a wacko and there’s no telling what kind of a head case they’ll be sending our way.”
Ybarra: “You’re fired. I know Betsy DeVos and happen to like her. But I don’t know anything about this other guy, so I guess I’ll pass. Don’t I have something else to do on Monday?”
So, where were her communications people in this discussion? Ybarra has at least three skilled communicators who are savvy with public relations. It’s amazing that none of them said, “Uh, Sherri … I think you ought to go to this one.”
Zais’ visit may have been partially out of Ybarra’s sphere, but it wouldn’t matter if the purpose of his visit was to inspect school bathrooms. Ybarra should have been there with him. Mark her down for an “unexcused” absence.
Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at [email protected].