Disrupting the Education Establishment?
Public officials in Idaho are pouring money into the public education system. Gov. Brad Little brags of increasing “investments in education” as one of his great accomplishments. Idaho’s K-12 budget increased 12.5% over last year. The legislature demanded no significant reforms either. Pouring unprecedented quantities of money into the public system has a quality all its own, to borrow a phrase.
Idaho citizens may not love what government schools are doing. Education is the top state issue for voters, according to public opinion polls. Citizens are concerned about something. Is the problem money or culture? Is it the monopoly? Government bureaucrats, teachers’ unions, and activist organizations control much of what goes on in schools. Despite steady increases in per-student funding, test scores and student achievement have been flat for the last twenty years. Parents are rightly worried about critical race theory and deviant sexual ideas being pushed on children from kindergarten onward.
Many families have walked away from the system. Around 15,000 Idahoans homeschool, a growth of more than 10% during the last year. More than 18,000 students attend one of the more than 140 private schools in Idaho, and many of these have long waitlists. Enrollment in Idaho’s K-12 has decreased by more than 3,000 students over the last year despite the state’s unprecedented growth.
Over 300,000 children are still in Idaho’s government schools. The vast majority of future voters and taxpayers will be products of government schools, so what happens in government schools matters. Walking away from the system oneself does not stop the problem of bad government schools for the rest of the state.
It also matters who runs the public school system. It matters who runs the State Department of Education and who runs the local school boards.
Idaho’s 2022 Republican primary for Superintendent of Public Instruction pits two candidates who think the system is just fine against a candidate who believes the education system must be disrupted.
The incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction, Sherri Ybarra, believes that the system is mostly working. “I have done what you asked me to do,” Ybarra recently told a group of Republicans. While she does not take a strong stance on issues such as critical race theory or sexual deviancy being taught in her public schools, she did at least send a strongly worded letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland after he characterized the concerned parents who challenged school boards as “domestic terrorists.” Nevertheless, she asks for reelection by quoting Abraham Lincoln about not changing horses midstream. She promises more of the same.
Challenger Debbie Critchfield is also an insider. As President of the Idaho State Board of Education, she hired far-left activist Marlene Tromp to run Boise State University, which serves more than 20,000 students. When confronted with this, Critchfield shrugged, saying that social justice never came up. That is the mark of a system person, a creature of the establishment. She hired Tromp because Tromp checked all the right managerial boxes. Chritchfield never considered issues of culture, identity, and belief. Now, Tromp is pushing Marxist ideology onto Idaho college students, while Critchfield has moved on to her next endeavor. Despite her website declaring that neither CRT nor “gender exploration” and “over-sexualization of our children” belong in public schools, Critchfield accused her opponent of “pandering” and “making things up” that were not actually happening in Idaho’s schools because he warned of those very things.
“It isn’t happening here” is the mantra of Republicans who would rather close their eyes than see what is really going on, and by seeing, be compelled to action. But they may secretly endorse what is happening in the public schools.
Branden Durst is the only candidate for State Superintendent who recognizes that the entire system is captured by special interests who are running public schools for their benefit. Social change not education is now the focus of Idaho's education system, just as has happened across the country. Durst served two terms in the Idaho State House and one in the Senate. His opponents accuse him of “making things up,” but he is the only one who is willing to see what is going on and do something about it.
While his opponents see the job of State Superintendent as managing the bureaucracy and promoting school administrators and teachers, Durst sees it as putting parents and families first. While Ybarra and Critchfield want to protect and perpetuate the system, Durst intends to disrupt it.
The school choice movement presents the biggest possibility of disrupting the system. If taxpayer dollars followed students to private schools or homeschool co-ops, then the power of the public schools would be severely diminished. What do the candidates think about school choice?
Ybarra has said very little on school choice directly on her website. She wants students to have choices within the public schools, so she favors charter schools but nothing so radical or disruptive as money following the parents. When asked whether she would support school choice, she answers with "an emphatic no." Critchfield also prioritizes charter schools, noting on her website that she won the endorsement of the Idaho Charter Network. But she seems open to some forms of school choice, so long as they do not "siphon" money away from public schools. “I’m a yes and a no on this,” she said. “This is an unsettled issue in the state that needs some leadership.” But she is not going to be the one to provide it.
On the other hand, Branden Durst lists school choice as one of his top three priorities, promising to champion the Empower Parents in Education Act if he is elected. As Durst said at a recent candidate forum put on by the Idaho Business for Education group, “There are two contrasting views of what our schools need. … There are those who believe we need to continue to double down on a system that isn’t working for a lot of parents. … And then you’ve got me, somebody’s who’s coming from the outside, who recognizes that, maybe we need to do things differently.” Neither of his opponents disagreed with that formulation.
Ybarra and Critchfield are both fiddling. Both hope for more funding, even after the budget blowout from this year. One wants to emphasize more financial literacy. They other to tweak graduation requirements. Neither seem to notice that Idaho's education report card is pretty dismal.
The beginning of wisdom is a recognition that throwing money at a corrupt and corrupting system will not fix anything. Idaho's proficiency rates are dismal and getting worse. Just 70% of third graders are proficient in reading. Less than 40% of fourth graders are proficient in math. Less than half of 4th graders are proficient at English. Ybarra brags that graduation rates are going up, but this suggests just passing through--not achievement.
With such a record, sticking with the establishment is the riskiest move of all.
Brian Almon writes for gemstate.substack.com.