Among the many heated Republican primary elections in Idaho in coming months, one of the most intriguing - from a political scientist’s point of view - may be the contest for superintendent of public instruction.
And at the legislature last week, we got some additional insight into how that may unfold.
The backdrop is this. Sherri Ybarra is the two-term Republican (of course) incumbent, with background as a school teacher and administrator at Mountain Home; critiques of her work as superintendent have varied (the legislature doesn’t seem especially enamored) but she has been generally non-ideological. She hasn’t declared whether she will run again, but seems likely to.
Two others have specifically announced. One is Debbie Critchfield, a former president of the state Board of Education who also has some professional background in local schools. She too seems relatively non-ideological (the apparently now de rigeur note against critical race theory seems just tucked into her website) and her basis for challenging Ybarra seems grounded mostly in questions of how capably the incumbent is doing her job.
Her response to Ybarra’s budget request provides some of the flavor: “In a budget cycle, with record state surpluses, we might have expected the State Superintendent to request support for all kindergarteners, rather than a limited and unclear approach to a real need. We might have expected to see a request to take on the ongoing issue of health benefits for educators or facilities needs. Once again, our educators, parents, and students will need to look to the Governor and the Legislature for leadership in addressing serious issues, including empowering parents, schools' challenges for retaining educators and staff, and delivering student-centered solutions to learning."
Education enthusiasts might respond to that (or not) but that professional-sounding (okay, professional) approach isn’t likely to get juices running in a Republican primary.
Having said that, Critchfield has pulled in some serious support organizationally and in fundraising, and for her part Ybarra, the winner in two seriously-contested election cycles, should not be at all discounted.
Then there’s the third candidate, more of a wild card than the other two.
Branden Durst is a former Democratic state legislator who quit, moved to Washington state, came back to the Boise area and declared himself a Republican - an ideologically activist one, the kind quick to slap the “liberal” label on other Republicans who happen to disagree with him about something. The splash page on his website says, “Continue if you want to stop critical race theory, end common core, fund students not systems.” He has located the talking points on the right and is employing them enthusiastically.
A Facebook post from him last week said, “There is a battle waging for the soul of our country, and the epicenter of that battle is our schools. Yesterday in the Senate Education Committee, we came face-to-face with those who wish to continue to undermine parent's rights.”
A former Democrat now playing hard to the Trump loyalist Republican wing, against two relatively establishment-oriented educators? How is this going to play out?
An early indicator of the shape of campaigning to come came last week when a bill proposed by Durst and Senator Christy Zito, R-Hammett, was turned down (on a tie vote) by the Senate Education Committee. As the Idaho Ed News described the “Idaho Parental Freedom in Education Act,” it “would have allowed parents to review all documents pertaining to their child’s education, visit schools and classrooms ‘without prior consent or notification,’ and refuse medical devices or treatments.” (It could have been called the Chaotic Mobocracy in Schools Act - you can see where this would lead - but that’s another story.)
After the vote, Durst and one of the Republican no votes, Senator Jim Woodward (who Durst later of course described as a liberal), had an apparently profanity-laden and physical-contact confrontation (the details are a little murky and contested) serious enough that capitol police got involved.
In cycles past this might have been terrible publicity for Durst. In 2022, it’s called exciting the base - very Trumpian.
You can only imagine what this will look like two to three months from now. But I have no guess who will be sworn in as the state’s superintendent of public instruction next January.