On Monday night, three Republican candidates vying to be Idaho’s superintendent of public instruction sparred over issues including school choice, graduation rates and critical race theory.
The candidates — incumbent Sherri Ybarra and challengers Debbie Critchfield and Branden Durst — squared off in a live debate on Idaho Public Television ahead of the May 17 GOP primary.
The debate featured tense moments and attacks, with each candidate seeking to distinguish themselves and their visions. The candidates had differing views on several issues, including whether critical race theory was prevalent in Idaho schools, how the COVID-19 pandemic was handled, and what measures could help improve school attendance rates. literacy and early graduation.
Durst, a former state legislator, and Critchfield, former chairman of the State Board of Education, kicked off the debate by saying it was time for a change. Durst came out swinging his two challengers. He said they would provide a vision based on “insider opinions” and introduced himself as the foreign candidate.
“My view, an underdog view, is very different,” he said. “I believe we need to do things differently. … I believe that we must remove the government and let the parents lead as God intended.
He referred to claims of critical race theory in schools and the “sexualization of students”, and said people should ask themselves if they are happy with the current state of education.
Critchfield also said she would bring new vision to the role. She said she wanted to serve as superintendent because teachers, students and families deserve more.
“The core of my vision places skills and job readiness at the center of an education in Idaho,” she said. “And that starts with a good start when our children can read and continues throughout as we prepare our students and our children for their lives and their careers.”
Throughout the debate, Ybarra defended her record and referenced numbers that showed Idaho had improved her passing scores since she took office. She also touted her experience as a teacher, an achievement she frequently cites, and said she had the experience to improve education in Idaho.
Durst defends interaction at Idaho Capitol
Near the start of the debate, Durst defended an incident during the last legislative session in which he confronted a Republican senator after a legislative committee rejected a parental rights bill he was proposing.
After 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 described as profane and the police responded. Following the incident, a statement from Republican leaders in the Idaho Senate said Durst had exhibited “flagrant conduct unbecoming of anyone.”
Durst said Monday that senators are putting politics ahead of parents.
“I got defensive about it because I trust parents and I’m a parent advocate,” 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 lawmaker to get laws passed.
“If you want someone who’s going to be milquetoast and not fight, I’m not your guy,” he said.
Candidates talk about school choice
Candidates also had to consider whether they supported school choice — often known for describing the use of public education funds to enroll students in private or alternative schools — and how they would ensure that that students have access to a uniform and comprehensive system of free public schools.
Durst said he supports legislation that would allow the money to follow students who want to attend private or alternative schools.
“That’s how competition works,” he says. “It’s part of the Republican platform, and I support it 100 percent.”
He claimed he had a plan that would give parents choice, while protecting rural schools and upholding the Idaho Constitution. Throughout the debate, he spoke about the importance of giving parents options and leaving them in control of their children’s education.
Critchfield was asked specifically if she would have supported a bill that died in committee during the last legislative session that would have created scholarship accounts that families could use for tuition and college fees. students in private primary schools.
She said she should make sure it doesn’t result in the funding of state public schools and that it doesn’t come at the expense of rural schools.
Critchfield said she was the only contestant who “fully understands what it means to educate a child in a rural setting.”
“When we talk about choice, we need to look at choice and how we take it outside of the most populated and urban areas of our state, where it’s limited to nothing,” she said.
Ybarra was asked why, after advocating for school choice, she did not present her own meaningful school choice proposal during her tenure. The superintendent then claimed that under her leadership she had increased school choice opportunities by more than 40%, but said she would not support good ones.
“That’s why you’ve seen my staff and I struggle with anything that comes along that takes money away from public education,” Ybarra said. “Idaho voters have entrusted me with their taxpayers’ money 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 got into an argument after Critchfield asked Ybarra how she increased school choice and attempted to intervene during the debate.
“Like in a third-grade classroom, we teach our students not to interrupt,” Ybarra said. “I was talking.”
Durst said he believes giving parents the option to enroll in private schools will 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 elsewhere is how we improve our graduation rates,” Durst said.
Critchfield, however, said the state needs to transform how it educates its juniors and seniors. She said it should be rooted in work experience. This could include internship or apprenticeship opportunities.
“It’s not just about knowing,” she said. “But it’s about doing.”
Ybarra emphasized that her work expands career and technical education choices for students and “more options” within the public education system.
When Ybarra was asked why the state’s four-year graduation rate had dropped, she pointed to the pandemic. Idaho’s five-year graduation rate has improved, according to the State Board of Education.
Durst alleges ‘widespread’ CRT teachings
Critical race theory continued to be a concern for some lawmakers and officials, though K-12 teachers and administrators said it was not taught in schools across the country. ‘Idaho. Independent reports from two universities, Boise State and University of Idaho, also found no evidence to suggest “indoctrination” in higher education.
Critchfield said she hasn’t seen a systemic effort to embed critical race theory in schools. Parents worry about it, schools say they don’t teach it and policymakers don’t know what to do, she said.
School board members need more support and help, she said.
“They need someone to help them communicate,” she said. “We want to encourage and ensure that our parents are involved in some of these very important committees and decision-making at the local level.”
Ybarra said she visited government and history classes, spoke with educators and investigated all the critical race theory allegations that came across her desk. She also distributed a five-point plan to superintendents to ensure they educated themselves on the matter and took the allegations seriously, she said.
Durst said critical race theory is taught widely.
He grouped critical race theory with a number of other terms that have been criticized, 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 repressed and the other that is oppressive, based on “the color of our skin and our ethnicity”.
Critical Race Theory “recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past,” according to the American Bar Association’s website. “Instead, it recognizes that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on black Americans and other people of color continues to permeate the social fabric of this nation.”
“The time for dialogue is over. Our schools are infested with these things,” Durst said. “Does this happen in every school district in the state of Idaho? No it is not. But it happens all the time. Yes.”
At the end of the debate, Durst encouraged candidates to vote for him by referencing a phrase known to insult President Joe Biden.
“On May 17, you’ll have your last chance to do something you’ve wanted to do for a long time, which is ‘Let’s Go Brandon,'” he said.