BOISE – Conventional wisdom is that the Democrats’ best chance of capturing a statewide office in Idaho this year is the state school superintendent’s post.
It’s an open seat in which the Republican nominee is a political newcomer with no statewide experience and the Democratic nominee is the former chief deputy state superintendent who almost beat current GOP Superintendent Tom Luna eight years ago.
So far, the race has been marked by a series of embarrassing revelations about Republican nominee Sherri Ybarra. Even Luna says Democrat Jana Jones could well win. He hasn’t endorsed either candidate in the race.
Jones is running hard, but it’s an uphill climb for a Democrat in Idaho, as Republicans hold every statewide office, every seat in the congressional delegation and 80 percent of the state Legislature.
Ybarra is in her second year as a curriculum director and federal programs chief for the Mountain Home School District, after brief stints as a principal and 11 years as a third-grade teacher.
“I don’t claim to be a polished politician,” she said.
That’s been evident. She had to remove passages on her campaign website that were copied word-for-word from Jones’ site. She mistakenly identified a former Republican primary rival as a member of her campaign team when he isn’t endorsing either candidate in the race. She skipped a question-and-answer session with hundreds of school administrators from throughout the state, citing schedule conflicts, and then was seen having coffee with a GOP legislator nearby. And she acknowledged that she failed to vote in the 2012 general election in which Idaho voters overturned a series of controversial school-reform laws that Ybarra says she opposed.
Her mantra is “address the whole child,” and she notes she’s working on her doctorate in education.
“I’ve worked my way all the way up through the system, in every phase of education,” Ybarra said. Education “has a lot of different tentacles on it much like an octopus, and so you have to have someone like myself who’s worked in every phase of those tentacles.”
Jones worked under two Republican state superintendents and one Democratic one, and headed the Office for Children under Gov. Cecil Andrus, a Democrat, at the same time she was working for GOP Superintendent Jerry Evans. Working for the two at the same time “really taught me a lot,” she said.
Regardless of party, she said, what Idaho needs is a schools chief “who will step up and advocate, even when times are hard, for what our kids really need.”
Luna, the first non-educator to serve as Idaho’s state schools superintendent, proposed the reform laws that sought to shift resources, allowing big technology improvements without increasing school funding. Those improvements included providing a laptop for every high school student and a new focus on online learning. The plan also included rolling back teachers’ contract rights. Voters overwhelmingly rejected all three laws in a 2012 referendum vote.
“It seemed punitive in nature,” particularly toward teachers, said Jones, who taught for 10 years and operated an innovative private school before becoming an administrator and education official.
After those laws were rejected, Gov. Butch Otter appointed a task force that included teachers, parents, school officials, legislators and more, which recommended 20 school reforms. The package comes with a $350 million annual price tag once the reforms are fully phased in.
“To me, it was the kind of process that should’ve been used all along,” Jones said, “the kind of process I’ve always used when I was in the department, and will continue to use as state superintendent.”
Ybarra said she opposed the Luna laws.
“Technology is just a piece of instructing students,” she said. She acknowledges her failure to vote in the election that rejected them, but says she considers voting history to be “private information.”
Both Jones and Ybarra say they back the task force’s 20 recommendations, but Ybarra said she’d prefer to pick the top five “that will affect the classroom the most” and focus on those. “Those are the things that are large and will impact kids the most,” she said.
Both candidates back the new Idaho Core Standards, which are part of the Common Core movement to set benchmarks for what children should learn at each grade level. The standards have aroused controversy because some fear they’re harbingers of federal takeover of local schools, though the standards were developed by a coalition of states.
Jones said the standards were adopted in Idaho at the same time the Legislature was working on the Luna laws, and they were largely overlooked.
“Public engagement about Common Core was truly missed,” she said. “So now the fear has taken over.”
If people look at Idaho’s standards themselves, she said, they won’t find anything troubling.
“And if there is, let’s take a look at it and see what we can do to make it better,” she said. “I have committed that next summer I will bring together educators and stakeholders to review the Idaho Core. Teachers are telling me there are some holes and gaps, especially between grade levels, that we may need to adjust or fill.”
Ybarra said the challenges of Common Core can be managed “if we concentrate less on it being a political football and more on implementation, local control, public input.”
“My concerns are more with the testing than the standards,” she said. “Testing, we’re not going to get out of that. It’s a requirement.”
She said she favors administering the hourslong test that goes with the Idaho Core Standards, not just in the spring, but also in the fall, so it will measure growth through the school year.
“Use that information appropriately, not as a weapon,” Ybarra said. “You’re going to need a starting point and a stopping point.”
Though the state Board of Education has discussed a fall-and-spring testing plan, the current plan calls for spring testing only.
Both candidates support more access to early childhood education, but oppose making public preschool mandatory in Idaho.
One point where they differ: Jones says the state needs to increase school funding. She points to the increasing number of school districts – now 91 of 115 – passing supplemental property tax levies just to fund basic needs, and districts’ struggles to recruit and retain top teachers.
“It’s a state obligation, and right now it’s being passed down to the local communities,” she said.
Ybarra said she’s “a proponent of using the dollar that you have effectively.”
“Allocating more money for education does not necessarily produce higher test scores, and Idaho students deserve better,” she said in an issue statement on education funding. “They deserve an all-around approach of addressing the whole child.”
That means, she said, that educators should be “meeting students where they’re at and helping them reach their highest potential. It includes social and emotional growth; it includes physical activity. It includes customizing the needs to each student, continuously monitoring growth for effectiveness, using a collaboration approach with a team and being very supportive of your staff.”
Former Idaho state schools Superintendent Jerry Evans, a Republican who is not endorsing either candidate in the race, said he hasn’t heard the phrase as such before, but said, “It’s hard to disagree with any of that.”
“I think when we look at the educational situation in Idaho, we are starving for resources,” Evans said. “But no one wants to put additional money into the educational system unless they have some assurance that it’s going to make a difference.”
What Idaho needs in its next superintendent, he said, is “someone who is well-grounded in the educational community and who possesses some outstanding leadership skills.”
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