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Superintendent candidates clash over a variety of Idaho education policies

State superintendent candidates Republican Debbie Critchfield and Democrat Terry Gilbert clashed over various education policies, including school choice, funding and vaccination rates during the debate in Monday night on Idaho Public Television.

Gilbert, a former teacher, criticized Critchfield’s lack of classroom experience as she eased her former role as chair of the State Board of Education, and said her experience creating and implementing policies matched the statewide “assignment” of the position.

Both are vying to replace Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, who has held the position for nearly eight years but was ousted in the GOP primaries.

The general elections will take place in just two weeks, on Tuesday 8 November.

Monday’s debate saw Critchfield and Gilbert align on their desires to support teachers, improve literacy rates and protect public schools, but they squabbled over school choice, rights parenting, funding and leadership.

EdNews reporter Kevin Richert and Boise Public Radio’s James Dawson interviewed the candidates from a two-person panel moderated by IPT’s Melissa Davlin.

The debate began with a discussion of recently released ISAT scores, which showed that more than two-thirds of Year 10 students score below proficient. They also discussed low literacy rates and recently released NAEP scores, which fell below a ten-year mark.

Although the candidates agreed that more work needed to be done, their approaches differed.

Gilbert attributed the state’s low scores in part to Critchfield’s leadership while serving on the State Board. He suggested that schools use tutors and retired teachers in classrooms to improve student performance without overburdening teachers. He also suggested increased funding to improve literacy.

Critchfield said part of the reason she ran for superintendent was to take more action than she could on the State Board.

“There’s not much a volunteer, designated person can do,” she replied to Gilbert.

The GOP candidate praised Gov. Brad Little’s focus on literacy — including a $72 million boost last year — but said math has been neglected. She will look at math funding and policy implementation, she said, and refocus leadership on the “science of reading” to equip teachers with the tools to improve literacy rates.

On school choice, Critchfield said she would be open to discussing a voucher system, which would allow parents to direct public school funds towards non-public education. She heard parents’ desires for more choice in their children’s education, she said, but the action would not come at the expense of public schools.

Gilbert responded with his tough stance against the good guys, a key point in his campaign.

“If you want to kill public schools, let’s adopt a voucher program,” Gilbert said.

The Democratic nominee believes that the state’s current school choice options — such as charters, magnet schools, homeschooling and public schools — are sufficient.

The two also debated what to do with the more than $300 million the Legislature set aside for K-12 during the September special session.

Gilbert said he would split the money between educator salaries and literacy, both math and English.

Critchfield said she will direct the new funds to vocational technical training, workforce preparation, public-private partnerships and school facility issues.

Both candidates said they support local control over book selections in school libraries. Gilbert said the book ban reflects a “narrowing of the American spirit.”

Critchfield focused on the process, saying conversations around library and classroom book collections come down to a “gap in communication and transparency. She said she would help districts create policies and educate their communities.

The debates also saw:

  • Candidates partially agree on school security and local control. Critchfield said she wants to support district school safety initiatives and focus on facilities and law enforcement presence in schools. Gilbert agreed and said the conversation reflected a “sad commentary” on the country as a whole.
  • Critchfield supports parental choice in vaccinations, the rates of which are approaching levels that risk herd immunity. The GOP candidate said she would support districts as they spread vaccine information, but ultimately said parents are the primary guardians of their children’s lives. Gilbert stressed his support for vaccines.
  • Candidates agree that more support for teachers is needed to reduce shortages. Gilbert suggested that Idahoans send notes to teachers to express their support. Critchfield said she wanted to focus on non-financial support to help teachers navigate the additional roles they have taken on.
  • Both candidates see a need to increase mental health resources in schools. Gilbert said Idaho should use the federal government to increase access to mental health, while Critchfield suggested using public-private partnerships.
  • Both agree that school districts should have pre-K options.

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