As a government and civics teacher for much of her 30-year teaching career, Democratic state superintendent candidate Cindy Wilson should know better than to run against an incumbent in a state that bleeds Republican red.
But here she is, taking on Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, who is seeking her second term. Wilson faces quite a challenge, with limited finances and even less name recognition overall. TV land in the Gem State has been more consumed by horse racing and slot machines than the top post in Idaho’s Department of Education.
Still, Wilson has at least a fighting chance in this election. Education professionals, especially those involved with the Idaho Education Association, tend to favor Democratic candidates for state superintendent. Four years ago, Democrat Jana Jones came within a few thousand votes – or about a percentage point – of ruining Ybarra’s political career before it started. It was close enough to encourage Wilson to give it a try this time.
“I’ll tell you why I’m running,” she told me. “I’m running for the kids … I want to be a voice for the kids. There’s a vacuum right now.”
One thing working in Wilson’s favor is her personality; a quick smile and an infectious laugh can go a long way in a political campaign. If her multiple “teacher of the year” awards mean anything, her government classes were not boring.
Ybarra has opened the door some for Wilson. According to Idaho Education News, Ybarra has skipped several candidate forums and has appeared in one campaign event – at an Eagle bar, hosted by a former principal who was accused of sexual harassment. Most of her campaigning will be done on the GOP bus tour. Wilson, meanwhile, has been all over the state meeting with educators and community leaders, and talking with anyone who will listen about her vision for education.
Wilson has the support of one high-profile Republican — Jim Jones, a retired chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court and former attorney general. Jones spoke in six of Wilson’s classes when she was teaching at Capital High School in Boise and was impressed with how well prepared her students were for his visit. She also has talked about the job with Jerry Evans, a former Republican state superintendent. Evans said he is staying neutral in this race.
“What he told me is that children don’t come to school with little R’s and D’s on their foreheads,” she said. “We need an Idaho education for Idaho kids – not a Republican education system or a Democratic education system. I can talk with people and share a vision, without being part of a political machine, or having plans to shake up things on the Land Board. I am not a crazy partisan. I have Republicans all over the state who are supporting me.”
One knock against her is that she doesn’t have administrative experience, either as a superintendent or school principal. But she’s no stranger to government work, having served on Gov. Butch Otter’s education task force and, more recently, as a member of the state’s Correction Board. Her position on that board has given her a perspective of what happens when an education system fails to reach students. One of her leading campaign platforms is early childhood education and making sure that children are reading at least to grade level by the third grade.
“If students are not reading at grade level by that time, then we have a problem. Seventy percent of those in prison didn’t graduate from high school, or have a GED,” she said. “We’re talking about spending $500 million for a prison. Do we want our state to continue putting our money there? We need to tell the story about how we can change that by providing early childhood learning. It’s an economics argument.”
Wilson is well versed on the challenges of rural schools, having taught in Pierce, Orofino and Shelley. She also has taught in two of the state’s larger districts, Boise and West Ada, based in her hometown of Meridian. She views collaboration as a key to a state superintendent’s success.
“I’ve lived all over the state and I understand the difference between north and south, rural and urban. You have to build relationships to make things happen, and that’s not being done now.”
Next week, I’ll take a closer look at Ybarra’s campaign.
Written by Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist and columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at [email protected]