State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra often reminds people that “I’m a teacher, not a politician.”
But make no mistake about it – she’s a pretty good politician, at least when it comes to winning elections. She’ll never get the nickname of “Landslide Sherri.” To win election and re-election, she defeated two Democrats in races that were “too close to call” hours after the polls closed. Those were the only statewide races in which a Democrat was close to beating a Republican.
In politics, winning is all that matters – and Ybarra does that. And she does the political stuff quite well, such as making speeches, working crowds and holding her own in debates. Critics will say that she misses meetings at the statehouse when the Legislature is in session and her record for attending State Board of Education meetings is spotty. Over the years, there are those who have kept track of days that her car was missing from her assigned space – with the suggestion that she isn’t doing her job.
Ybarra dismisses all that as “rubbish, garbage and gossip.” Its not deserving of her attention.
Politicians are not lining up to support her. Sen. Jim Patrick of Twin Falls is the only active legislator on her steering committee. Former Sens. Shawn Keough of Sandpoint and Jeff Siddoway of Rexburg also are listed as supporters.
Political support is much higher for Ybarra’s opponents – former State Board president Debbie Critchfield of Oakley and former Rep. Branden Durst of Boise. Twenty-seven Republican legislators are backing Critchfield, making her the favorite of the political establishment, and Durst has carved his niche with the GOP’s right wing.
As Ybarra sees it, it’s clear what separates her from her opponents.
“I am the only educator in the field – the only certified teacher, the only certified principal and the only certified superintendent … and a track record to prove it. I think people understand that you want a lawyer as your attorney general, and you should want a teacher for your superintendent of public instruction.”
The track record is open for debate. Idaho is at, or near, the bottom in several funding categories, including per-pupil spending. Idaho Education News, which provides aggressive coverage of education in the state, points out that while ISAT scores have inched upward in recent years, K-3 reading proficiency has been sliding – even before the pandemic.
Ybarra points to different numbers that reflect progress.
“In my first two terms, Idaho has risen from 31st in the nation for student achievement to 17th. We are now fifth in the nation for college and career readiness. Idaho student scores on the ACT and SAT continue to increase while scores for the rest of the nation decline. Idaho ranks first in the nation for the number of students taking dual credit courses.”
As for funding, she said, “we’ve received $100 million or more in new money for education in each year since I took office. That speaks for itself.”
Ybarra supports the demise of Common Core in Idaho, a favorite whipping post for Republicans, in favor of new standards that will go into effect in July – created by teachers. She says she’ll do everything to keep out Critical Race Theory in Idaho schools, but don’t look for her to demagogue the issue.
It’s not running rampant in Idaho schools. In fact, from what she’s seen, it doesn’t exist in the Gem State. She also has put together a game plan for administrators to follow when there are allegations about CRT.
“I have investigated every allegation that has come to my attention,” she said. “Usually, it amounts to a word or two, or maybe a line, in a textbook. I have not had a person coming to me saying a particular teacher is teaching Critical Race Theory in a classroom. I’ve heard anecdotal stories, people saying ‘I heard’ … but no clear examples.”
Her immediate focus is more on the big picture.
“When I first took office, people told me they wanted me to look into student achievement,” she said. “They told me, ‘I’m tired of being last in achievement, last in funding and last in everything.’”
Ybarra says that, with her leadership, Idaho is going in the right direction with its public education. She thinks even more can be accomplished with another term in office.
ctmalloy@outlook. Chuck Malloy is a long-time Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org