BOISE — Democratic candidate for state schools superintendent Terry Gilbert decried his Republican opponent, former state Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield, as a “policy wonk” during a live debate this week, and said he’s the only candidate with “the heart of a teacher.”
“I’m not a politician, I’m an educator,” Gilbert said during the “Idaho Debates” Monday evening on Idaho Public Television.
Critchfield said, “I think it’s important to note that the assignment as state superintendent is very different than that of a classroom teacher. We value and want the skills that an energized and passionate teacher brings to the classroom, and you want that same type of energy at the state level, but you need someone who has worked with policy makers, with legislators, who is familiar with working with the stakeholders in the state. And these are all things that I’ve been able to acquire, skills that I can bring to the table right on Day 1 of the job.”
“The policy side is important,” she said.
The two rivals for a four-year term as Idaho’s next state superintendent of public instruction also clashed over private-school vouchers and an array of other education issues in the state during the live debate. Here are some of the issues they addressed:
Asked if she’d support allowing parents to use public dollars for scholarships to private or religious education, Critchfield said, “My answer is a yes and a no.”
“We don’t want to defund public schools,” she said, “and it should not come at the risk of rural schools. What I would like to see is a thoughtful and balanced approach to how we address this.”
Critchfield said, “I have never said that I supported vouchers. This discussion of how we … open up school choice in other ways is one of the predominant discussions in education in Idaho today.”
“If we’re just talking about slicing up the same pie, that isn’t going to work,” she said. She said the discussion thus far has been driven by legislators and interest groups. “There has been no leadership at the state level on this issue to balance all of the interests, particularly starting with that (state) constitutional mandate,” to support public education. “We need an Idaho solution that honors all choices,” she said.
Gilbert declared, “If you want to kill public schools, let’s adopt a voucher program.”
“I call them ‘voucher vultures,’” he said. “They circle round the public schools. They wait for them to die. They spread messages and rumors about what the schools are doing: ‘Do you know that they’re indoctrinating your child?’ The latest pitch was … they’re teaching pornography. Well, after they have split the parents from the public schools, then they say, ‘Oh, we have this neat spiffy idea, we have this voucher program.’ I’m very much opposed to it.”
He added, “We have school choice now. We have public charter schools. We have home schools. We have public schools. We have magnet schools. We have lots of choices now. We don’t have to ruin our democracy in our country by gravitating to a voucher program.”
Critchfield said, “As I’ve traveled the state over the last 18 months, I have heard from parents at every level of education, at every delivery and every environment. And there are those who absolutely believe that as their parental decisions direct, that they would like to have money that would go towards that. So I don’t think we discount that. It isn’t to me just a black-and-white. How do we come at this in a way that we balance the interests of everyone, respecting where we are with public schools as a constitutional mandate, and find solutions for all Idahoans?”
Gilbert responded tersely, “Sounds good. It’s not good.”
Recent test scores showed Idaho students outperforming their peers in other states, but still lagging from pre-pandemic levels. “The last two years has been the biggest disruption in education in modern times,” Critchfield said. She said Idaho reopened schools and kept them open “quicker than other states around us, and I want to acknowledge the work that’s been done by our teachers and our administrators.”
She also called for an expansion of the state’s current early literacy push to include math, saying, “I believe that math has been overlooked.” And she called for a “focus on the science of reading” in K-8 teacher preparation. Citing a “lack of leadership over the last eight years,” a reference to current second-term Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, whom Critchfield defeated in the GOP primary, Critchfield said, “We don’t teach teachers to be reading specialists.”
Gilbert said his solution to falling test scores is bringing in tutors, including former teachers and retired teachers. “I do not want to put all the burden on our practicing teachers,” he said. “They are overburdened now and they need help and assistance.”
Gilbert said he signed the Reclaim Idaho education funding initiative, which would have raised taxes on the highest earners and corporations to permanently increase school funding, and criticized the governor and Legislature for making the initiative moot by holding a special session in September to both increase education funding and cut corporate and personal income taxes. “Why do our citizens pay levies now? Because the corporate tax rate is too low,” Gilbert said, “and they have to support the levy in order to have a school system for their children.”
Critchfield said, “I did not believe that we needed to raise taxes to be able to do that. … We were able to address that without raising taxes, and I think that’s very important. I’m a taxpayer. I care where my money goes. And I want to care and protect the investment that our taxpayers are making. How we strategically use and look at that money is one of the most critical roles that our superintendent can have.”
SPENDING THE NEW MONEY
The special session allocated $410 million more for public education each year, including $80 million for higher education related to training for in-demand careers, with the rest going to public schools. Asked how they’d recommend spending that $323 million, the two had differing answers.
Gilbert said he’d spend half on literacy, including math; and the other half on salaries, not only for teachers but also for school employees like bus drivers, janitors and cafeteria workers.
Critchfield cited her major campaign theme about skills and work readiness, and transforming the high school experience in Idaho to make it more relevant by increasing vocational and career skills training. “I would look at how we create private-public partnerships so that our students can have apprenticeships,” she said, along with other vocational skills programs. “I would also look at addressing our facilities issue, which has been kicked down the road so far that our schools are suffering because of it.”
Asked how they’d address Idaho’s teacher shortage, Critchfield said, “When I talk to teachers … the No. 1 thing that I get asked about is not about money, but it is about how they deal with severe behaviors.” Teachers need to be supplied with “skills and protocols” to deal with those situations, she said. “That is one of the biggest things that I’ve heard from teachers that are driving them out of the classroom.”
Gilbert said teachers are demoralized. “So how do we solve that? Well, here’s one simple thing,” he said. “Send a teacher a note, a hand-written warm-hearted note expressing your appreciation for the work they do, so they understand that the public is in back of them.”
APPROACH TO THE JOB
Gilbert said of Critchfield, “She is not a fighter. I am a fighter for public education.” He said he wants to form a “cornerstone movement” of members of the public who are concerned about public education as a cornerstone of the state, and will turn out to testify to the Legislature or make calls. “I’m not going to allow the Legislature just to roll over the public when it comes to public education,” he said.
Critchfield said, “I am a fighter for education, and I guess that has a different look and feel for my opponent. I believe that not just Idahoans but Americans are looking for cooperation and getting something done in government. So I don’t think you have to be adversarial and controversial to be able to work toward those goals.”