Home News Candidates clash over the future of Idaho's education

Candidates clash over the future of Idaho’s education

Terry Gilbert (left) and Debbie Critchfield (right) hash out solutions for current problems in education.
Terry Gilbert (left) and Debbie Critchfield (right) hash out solutions for current problems in education. Photo credit: pbs.org

Candidates running for Superintendent of Public Instruction met on Oct. 24 for the third of four debates for state and federal offices in Idaho.

The Superintendent of Public Instruction oversees the Idaho Department of Education and sits on the state Board of Education and the state Land Board.

Terry Gilbert, the democratic nominee, and Debbie Critchfield, the Republican nominee, established their qualifications for the job early in the debate.

Gilbert emphasized his background and experience as a teacher and as president of the Idaho Education Association — experiences that fostered a passion for teaching and gave him an inside look at what education in Idaho looked like.

“I am not a politician,” Gilbert said. “I’m an educator. I think it’s past time for a change. I can spark that change if you will allow me.”

Critchfield served on the Idaho Board of Education for seven years, serving two years as president which gave her an administrative perspective on Idaho schools.

“I am running for State Superintendent because great schools matter to Idaho,” Critchfield said. “I am running for State Superintendent because our teachers need more, our parents expect more and our students deserve more.”

Critchfield said the role of the Superintendent for Public Instruction is very different than the role of a teacher in the classroom.

“We value and want the skills that an energized and passionate teacher brings to the classroom,” Critchfield said. “You want that same type of energy at the state level, but you need someone who has worked with policymakers, with legislators, who is familiar with working with the stakeholders in the state. These are skills I can bring to the table on day one of the job.”

Post-pandemic learning loss

Despite improvement from 2021, Idaho test scores still fall short of pre-pandemic levels, especially in math. According to a news release from the Idaho Department of Education, 41.9% of students were deemed proficient or better in math in 2022 compared to 44.4% of students scoring proficient or better in 2019.

In order to help students improve, Gilbert proposed having tutors in the classroom, similar to the Math Tutoring Corps implemented in Oklahoma.

“I do not want to put all the burden on our practicing teachers,” Gilbert said. “They are overburdened now, and they need help and assistance.”

While the state pushed for increased literacy scores, Critchfield believes an equal priority on math is necessary.

“Math has been overlooked,” Critchfield said. “There’s been a fantastic focus on literacy, which we need to have, but we now need to also turn our attention equally to math. I would go lower than high school. I would say that we’re really struggling, the lowest scores we have are in junior high.”

Learning loss during the pandemic also affected literacy rates. According to the Idaho Reading Indicator, in Spring 2022 only 68% of students were reading at grade level.

“I am shocked that we have legislators saying, ‘We can’t throw money at this problem,’” Gilbert said. “We have neglected the funding of education since I entered the classroom, and it hasn’t gotten that much better. We do need money to improve these scores.”

Gilbert argued that the role of the State Superintendent in raising these scores was one of support.

“Part of my answer is to encourage teachers in the classroom,” Gilbert said. “I’ve been in the classroom for hours and hours with papers to grade — I was an English teacher. We can do much better with these scores. I don’t want to focus entirely on scores, however. I want teachers to emphasize the joy of teaching and the joy of learning.”

Critchfield suggested that literacy scores would improve as the state began to make more efforts to identify and support dyslexic students. She suggested that they do this by implementing Idaho’s new law requiring K-12 teachers to receive training on the characteristics of dyslexia.

Forming intergovernmental relationships

One responsibility of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is to bring policy proposals and budgets before the state legislature with 105 different opinions and perspectives on issues and budget priorities.

Critchfield reflected on her time on the state Board of Education working with the governor’s office and putting plans together to accomplish policy initiatives. She said developing those relationships was one of her favorite experiences during her time on the Board and would be beneficial to her as Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“My first goal is to find those places where people get along,” Critchfield said. “I think that’s one of the things that made me successful on the Board and as president that we’re able to work through and find things that we could work on together. I don’t always agree with my own husband. I would expect that there would be disagreements with others, but you can do it respectfully and find those places to work together.”

Gilbert, as a Democrat, would be a minority before Idaho’s super-majority red legislature. Gilbert promised to put the public first as he presented his plans for a cornerstone movement that would organize the public to be a voice for the legislature to express its will when needed.

“Generally, I get along with people very well,” Gilbert said. “However, I said that I’m a fighter. I am not going to allow the legislature to roll over the public when it comes to public education.”

Vouchers and school choice

One of the most divisive questions during the debate centered on the use of public dollars on scholarships to private and religious schools.

Gilbert has been very outspoken in his opposition to school vouchers, saying that the current charter system in Idaho is sufficient to meet the needs of students.

“If you want to kill public schools, adopt a voucher program,” Gilbert said. “Our genius in this country is public education.”

Critchfield says expanding school choice is one of the most prominent discussions in Idaho education right now.

“If we’re going to talk about public monies going to private institutions in the K-12 arena, it cannot come at the expense of public schools,” Critchfield said. “If we’re just talking about slicing up the same pie, that isn’t going to work. It can’t come at the expense of rural students who have limited choices. Frankly, public schools are a school of choice for many Idahoans.”

Critchfield defended school choice and advocated for a policy supporting all choices in Idaho.

Libraries

The Madison library is the local library located in Rexburg.
The Madison library is the local library located in Rexburg. Photo credit: Mary Kebker

Libraries have become the target of legislative budget cuts and restrictions across the country in recent years. Idaho lawmakers cut $3.8 million from the Commission for Libraries, the state agency that helps fund local libraries across the state, after claims that the Meridian Library was distributing “smut-filled pornography.”

Local school districts in Nampa and Bonners Ferry have also banned books they deem inappropriate. According to the Idaho Statesman, a newspaper located in Boise, over 60 books have been challenged in Idaho over the last four years. Many of these challenged books deal with subjects revolving around people of color and the LGBTQ community.

Gilbert defended the librarians.

“Those books in the libraries are selected by trained adults looking for books to educate, not indoctrinate, their children,” Gilbert said.

Critchfield argued that decisions on what to keep in school libraries should be left to each individual school district, not the state. She also defended local librarians.

“I haven’t talked to a school board member, teacher or librarian who is actively pursuing having unfit or inappropriate materials in a school library, but I also know that the library books that are purchased go through a different process than the books adapted for a classroom,” Critchfield said.

Improving School Safety

The Jefferson county sheriff's office secures the grounds of Rigby middle school after a shooting on May 6, 2021.
The Jefferson county sheriff's office secures the grounds of Rigby middle school after a shooting on May 6, 2021. Photo credit: Grace Wride

Increasing school safety has been at the forefront of educators’ and legislators’ minds ever since the Columbine shooting in 1999. One policy brought up during the debate included the decision of the Twin Falls School district to hire 10 armed guards for each elementary school for the 2022-23 school year.

“If a district decides they want to have more armed guards, we should allow them the flexibility within their budgets to be able to do that,” Critchfield said.

While the issue is mostly under local control, Critchfield believes the superintendent should make efforts so each school district can feel supported by the state. She also would prioritize having open conversations on how to protect students, teachers and communities.

Gilbert remarked on the tragedy of school shootings in the country.

“Yes, we need stronger buildings, but we also need some common sense in this country,” Gilbert said. “I used rifles when I was a child, trained by the NRA. It’s a different era now and the death of children is kind of ho-hum in our country. We had a couple of children die today from guns. At some point, we’re going to have to say enough is enough.”

Prioritizing mental health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21.6% of high schoolers in Idaho seriously considered suicide in the last year.

“I believe that the best way to address this is through public-private partnerships where we are referring out and up,” Critchfield said. “School teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, they’re in a great position where they interact with students on a regular basis to be able to recognize things.”

Currently, parents only have two options in Idaho if their child struggles with mental health: go to the emergency room or call law enforcement.

“Neither one of those solutions is what a parent needs in a time of crisis, so they look to the schools for those answers,” Critchfield said.

Gilbert said Idaho’s attitude of disliking the federal government may inhibit mental health access.

“We have to get over that attitude,” Gilbert said. “Our parents need help and if it’s as easy as seeking counseling with parental help and parental permission, we have the ability to do that. We can save lives.”

Idaho’s teacher shortage

According to a survey done by the Idaho State Board of Education in June, there were 702 teacher vacancies. At the time of the debate — in the middle of the school year — there were still 134 openings.

Critchfield said she likes to focus on the non-financial side of things.

“Compensation is huge and is a priority, but is not the long-term motivator,” Critchfield said. “There are non-financial ways we can support teachers to help them feel valued in a profession.”

Gilbert also emphasized the importance of helping teachers feel valued and appreciated.

“The depression and the behavioral issues are not just student-centered, they’re also teacher-centered,” Gilbert said. “How do we solve that? Here’s one simple thing. Send a teacher a note, a hand-written, warm-hearted note expressing your appreciation for the work they do, so they understand the public backs them.”

Information on other Idaho debates

The final debate will be held on Oct. 28 between candidates for lieutenant governor. Terri Pickens Manweiler will represent the Democratic Party and Scott Bedke will represent the Republican Party.

Debates can be viewed on the Idaho Public Television Youtube channel.

Articles on the Senate debate and attorney general debate can be found on the Scroll website.

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