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Schools superintendent candidates spar over a variety of Idaho education policies

The 2022 candidates for Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction: Democrat Terry Gilbert and Republican Debbie Critchfield (Idaho Education News)
The 2022 candidates for Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction: Democrat Terry Gilbert and Republican Debbie Critchfield (Idaho Education News)

Critchfield and Gilbert clashed over school choice, funding, immunization rates

Originally posted on on October 24, 2022

State superintendent candidates Republican Debbie Critchfield and Democrat Terry Gilbert clashed over a variety of education policies, including school choice, funding and immunization rates during Monday night’s Idaho Public Television debate.

Gilbert, a former teacher, jabbed at Critchfield’s lack of classroom experience, while she flexed her former role as president of the State Board of Education, and said her experience creating and implementing policy fit the “assignment” of the statewide position.

The two are vying to replace superintendent Sherri Ybarra, who’s occupied the role for nearly eight years, but was ousted in the GOP primaries.

The general election is just two weeks away on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

The Monday debate saw Critchfield and Gilbert align over their desires to support teachers, improve literacy rates and protect public schools, but they sparred over school choice, parental rights, funding and how to lead.

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

The debate began with a discussion of the recently releasedISAT scores, which showed more than two-thirds of 10th graders scoring below proficient. They also discussed low literacy rates and and the recently releasedNAEP scores, which dipped below a decade-long threshold.

While the candidates agreed more work must be done, their approaches differed.

Gilbert attributed the state’s low scores in part to Critchfield’s leadership while on the State Board. He suggested schools use tutors and retired teachers in classrooms to boost student performance without burdening teachers. He also suggested a funding boost 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 only so much that a volunteer, appointed person can do,” she responded to Gilbert.

The GOP candidate commended Gov. Brad Little’s focus on literacy – including a $72 million boost last year – but said math had been overlooked. She’ll look at math funding and policy implementation, she said, and reorient leadership toward the “science of reading” to equip teachers with the tools to improve literacy rates.

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

Gilbert responded with his staunch stance against vouchers, a key point of his campaign.

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

The Democratic candidate believes the state’s current school choice options – like charters, magnet schools, homeschooling and public schools – are sufficient.

The two also debated what to do with the over $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 in math and English.

Critchfield said she would put the new funds toward career-technical training, workforce readiness, public-private partnerships, and school facilities issues.

Both candidates said they support local control when it comes to school library book selections. Gilbert said book-banning reflects a “shrinking of the American mind.”

Critchfield zeroed in on the process, saying conversations around library and classroom book collections comes down to a “gap in communication and transparency.” She said she’d support districts in creating policies and educating their communities.

The debates also saw:

  • The candidates partially agree over school safety and local control. Critchfield said she wants to support districts own school safety initiatives, and focusing 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 support parent choice in immunizations, the rates for which are nearing levels that risk herd immunity. The GOP candidate said she would support districts as they spread information about vaccines, but ultimately said parents are the primary caretakers in their children’s lives. Gilbert emphasized his support of vaccines.
  • The candidates agree that increased support for teachers is necessary to reduce shortages. Gilbert suggested Idahoans send notes to teachers to express their support. Critchfield said she wants to focus on non-financial support to help teachers navigate the added roles they’ve taken on.
  • Both candidates see a need for increased mental health resources in schools. Gilbert said Idaho should use the federal government to increase mental health access, while Critchfield suggested using public-private partnerships.
  • The two agree that school districts should have pre-K options.
The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.