Candidates for Idaho’s top education post discussed school safety, early education and their vision for student success during a debate on Idaho Public Television Friday night.
Current Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, a Republican, is a former teacher and previously served as a federal curriculum director in Mountain Home School District in southwestern Idaho. Challenger Cindy Wilson, a Democrat, is a longtime classroom teacher who has served on the state Board of Correction and Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s education task force.
She recently retired as a government teacher at a Boise High School to concentrate on the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Wilson said education shouldn’t be determined by a child’s zip code, and every child in the state deserves a quality education. “Idaho kids deserve a strong dialogue and a strong vision about their future. They’re our most precious resource,” Wilson said in opening remarks.
She said Ybarra “doesn’t seem to be up to the task” of meeting the needs of students and teachers.
Ybarra, meanwhile, touted what she said is a record of success.
“Under my leadership, we’ve brought an improvement plan to life and we’re getting results,” Ybarra said. “Graduation rates are up. Educator pay is improving and thousands of our students are getting a jump start to college while earning credits while still in high school.”
The state remains far from its goal of having at least 60 percent of young adults obtaining a college degree or career training certificate. Ybarra and Wilson differed in their approach to the issue.
“Why is 60 percent important? Because we know that’s where the economic impact comes,” said Wilson.
She said increased early childhood education is the key to reaching the goal.
“I think everyone knows that third-grade reading level is the benchmark for how kids are going to do in school. That’s the first place we have to look — if we do that, students are going to be more successful.”
Wilson also said that during Ybarra’s tenure, Hispanic, Native American and impoverished children have fallen behind, with a 25 percent achievement gap between those populations and other Idaho students. While she said the best place for very young children to learn is in the home, she said that’s not always possible for families, and the state needs to step up.
Ybarra said that under her direction the state is making progress.
“You know there’s a lot of great work happening to ensure we meet our 60 percent goal — Making sure that we had structured schedules, that there was more one-to-one counseling for our students as well as adding seventh and eighth grades to career technical education,” she said. “We are very proud of our work.”
Ybarra also said that the research shows that investing in early childhood education pays off, but early education programs shouldn’t be mandated by the state.
“I didn’t send my son to school until he was 6 years old. He was ready academically — his mom was a teacher — but socially ... he wasn’t,” she said.
Ybarra touted her school safety program, a $20 million proposal that includes increased training for teachers, crisis counselors to help assess behavioral threats and updated emergency operations plans. She said she recently brought in the principal of Columbine High School to discuss safety, and he said the department was on the right track.
“Training, training, training for our educators on safety,” she said. “It includes everything that affects our students from bullying to suicide to harassment to preventative services.”
Wilson said Ybarra left out or disregarded input from key stakeholders — including the state Office of School Safety and Security and parents.
“Our children’s safety should not be a political issue that is thrown around like this,” she said. “I’ve taught 4,000 children in this state. They are my children and I will do whatever it takes to keep them safe.”
Wilson said Ybarra’s $20 million proposal was misguided, because the Office of School Safety is already addressing school safety issues, in part with a newly received $400,000 grant. She also said a safety plan must include mental health.
“We need to talk about threat assessment with the experts,” Wilson said.
Ybarra, however, implied she was making the decisions that were immediately needed and that collaboration would come later. She said if her child ran into the street, she would first get the toddler out of harms’ way and then talk to neighbors about possibly building a fence, not the other way around.
The debate is a collaborative effort of the Idaho Press Club, Boise State University’s School of Public Service, University of Idaho’s McClure Center, Idaho State University’s Department of Political Science, League of Women Voters Education Fund, and Idaho Public Television.