Three Republican candidates vying to be Idaho’s superintendent of public instruction sparred on issues Monday night including school choice, graduation rates and critical race theory.
The candidates — incumbent Sherri Ybarra and challengers Debbie Critchfield and Branden Durst — faced off in a live debate on Idaho Public Television ahead of the May 17 GOP primary.
The debate featured tense moments and attacks, as each candidate sought to distinguish themselves and their visions. The candidates had differing views on several issues, including whether critical race theory was widespread in Idaho schools, how the COVID-19 pandemic was handled and what steps could help improve early literacy and graduation rates.
Both Durst, a former state legislator, and Critchfield, former president of the State Board of Education, began the debate by saying it was time for a change. Durst came out at swinging at both of his challengers. He said they will provide a vision based on “insider views,” and pegged himself as the outsider candidate.
“My vision, the vision of an outsider, is very different,” he said. “I believe we need to do things differently. … I believe we need to get government out of the way and let parents lead as God intended.”
He referenced claims of critical race theory in schools and the “sexualization of students,” and said people should ask themselves whether they are satisfied with the current state of education.
Critchfield also said she would bring a new vision to the role. She said she wants to serve as superintendent because teachers, students and families deserve more.
“The core of my vision puts skills and work readiness at the center of an Idaho education,” she said. “And it begins with a strong start when our kids can read and continues throughout as we prepare our students and kids for their lives and their careers.”
Ybarra throughout the debate defended her record and referred to numbers that showed Idaho has improved in its achievement scores since she assumed office. She also touted her experience as a teacher, an accomplishment she frequently cites, and said she has the experience to improve Idaho education.
Durst defends interaction at Idaho Capitol
Toward the beginning of the debate, Durst defended an incident this past legislative session in which he confronted a Republican senator after a legislative committee rejected a parental rights bill he proposed.
Following the vote, Durst approached Sen. Jim Woodward, R- Sagle, and warned him that his vote would hurt him in the upcoming election. He then had another interaction with the senator in his office.
The interactions were said to be profane, and police responded. Following the incident, a statement from Idaho Senate Republican leaders said Durst exhibited “egregious conduct unbecoming of anyone.”
Durst on Monday said senators put politics in front of parents.
“I got defensive about that because I trust parents and I’m a defender of parents,” he said. “I’m not going to apologize for that. I’m not going to apologize for trying to fight for parents because they need it.”
He went on to tout his record as a legislator of getting legislation passed.
“If you want somebody who’s going to be milquetoast and not fight, I’m not your guy,” he said.
Candidates talk school choice
Candidates also faced questions on whether they supported school choice — often known to describe using public education funds for students’ enrollment in private or alternative schools — and how they would ensure that students had access to a uniform and thorough system of free public schools.
Durst said he supports legislation that would allow money to follow students who want to attend private or alternative schools.
“That’s how competition works,” he said. “That is part of the Republican platform, and I 100% support it.”
He claimed he had a plan that would give parents choice, while also protecting rural schools and fulfilling the Idaho Constitution. Throughout the debate, he talked about the importance of giving parents options and letting them be in control of their children’s education.
Critchfield was asked specifically whether she would have supported a bill that died in committee this past legislative session that would have created scholarship accounts that families could use for students’ tuition and fees at private grade schools.
She said she’d have to ensure it would not result in the state’s public schools being defunded, and that it would not come at the expense of rural schools.
Critchfield said she is the only candidate who “fully understands what it means to educate a child in a rural setting.”
“When we talk about choice, we have to look at choice and how we take that in outside of the most populous and urban areas of our state, where it’s limited to nothing,” she said.
Ybarra was asked why, after advocating for school choice, she hasn’t presented a meaningful school choice proposal of her own during her time in office. The superintendent then claimed under her leadership, she’s increased school choice opportunities by more than 40%, but said she would not support vouchers.
“That’s why you saw my staff and myself fight against anything that comes forward that siphons money away from public education,” Ybarra said. “The voters of Idaho have entrusted me with their taxpayer dollars to support public education.”
She added that the state’s rural schools have more challenges than the state’s larger urban schools.
At one point, Ybarra and Critchfield sparred after Critchfield asked Ybarra how she has increased school choice, and tried to interject during the debate.
“Like in a third grade classroom, we teach our students not to interrupt,” Ybarra said. “I was speaking.”
Durst said he believed providing parents with the option to enroll in private schools would improve graduation rates in Idaho.
“If you’re in a district that’s not working, then being able to leverage your authority as a parent to take that money someplace else is how we improve our graduation rates,” Durst said.
Critchfield, however, said the state needed to transform how it educates its juniors and seniors. She said that should be anchored to a work-based experience. That could include internship or apprenticeship opportunities.
“It’s not just about knowing,” she said. “But it’s about doing.”
Ybarra pointed to her work expanding career-technical education choices for students and “more options” within the system of public education.
When Ybarra was asked about why the state’s four-year graduation rate dropped, she pointed to the pandemic. The five-year graduation rate in Idaho improved, according to the State Board of Education.
Durst alleges ‘widespread’ CRT teachings
Critical race theory has continued to be an issue of concern for some legislators and officials, though K-12 teachers and administrators have said it is not taught in Idaho schools. Independent reports at two universities, Boise State and University of Idaho, also found no evidence to suggest “indoctrination” occurring in higher education.
Critchfield said she hasn’t seen a systemic effort to incorporate critical race theory in schools. Parents are concerned about it, schools say they aren’t teaching it and policymakers don’t know what to do, she said.
School board members need more support and help, she said.
“They need someone that will help them communicate,” she said. “We want to encourage and make sure that our parents are participating in some of these very important committees and decision-makings at the local level.”
Ybarra said she has visited government and history classes, talked with educators and investigated every allegation of critical race theory that has come across her desk. She also distributed a five-point plan to superintendents to make sure they educated themselves on the issue and took allegations seriously, she said.
Durst said critical race theory is being taught on a widespread basis.
He grouped critical race theory with a number of other terms that have received criticism, including diversity, equity and inclusion and transformative social-emotional learning. He defined the terms as a theory that divides people into two groups: one that is suppressed and one that is oppressor, based upon “the color of our skin and our ethnic background.”
Critical race theory “recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past,” according to the American Bar Association’s website. “Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.”
“The time for dialogue is over. Our schools are being infested with these things,” Durst said. “Is it happening in every single school district in the state of Idaho? No, it’s not. But it’s happening in a widespread basis. Yes.”
At the end of the debate, Durst encouraged candidates to vote for him by making a reference to a phrase known for insulting President Joe Biden.
“On May 17, you’ll get your final chance to do something you’ve wanted to do for a long time, which is say, ‘Let’s go Brandon,’” he said.
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