When Idahoans take to the polls on May 17 for the primary election, they’ll have four candidates to consider for Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Barring any late write-in candidates, only two will advance, as three of the candidates are running as Republicans. Here’s who will be on the ballot:
Incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra is seeking her third term after first being elected in 2014.
Ybarra touts her experience over her more than 20 years teaching and serving as superintendent as her greatest strength. She said she wants to keep building off success she’s seen with Idaho education since she’s taken office, pointing to national statistics of Idaho rising from 31st in the nation of student achievement to 17th, placing fifth in the nation for college and career readiness, rising student ACT and SAT scores, and ranking first in the nation for the number of students taking dual credit courses.
“I know how to get the job done,” Ybarra said. “I have over 20 years of experience in education and all three of my degrees are in education.”
Ybarra brings her previous two terms and experience in teaching and education administrative roles to the table for voters to consider. She said she’s done what many people have asked her to do which includes ending Common Core educational standards, getting kids back into the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic and investigating claims of critical race theory being taught to students.
Ybarra didn’t provide any examples of critical race theory being taught in Idaho and said she doesn’t believe Idaho is a scary example like other places in regard to critical race theory, but she wants to continue going into government classrooms and take peoples’ concerns seriously.
“I’ve described it as an attack on public education and I’m investigating every allegation around CRT,” Ybarra said. “We need to respect what folks are saying and having them point out examples. We need to give folks advice on how to check on curriculum as well.”
Continuing support for teachers is another priority for Ybarra. She advocated for teacher and classified staff bonuses for the work they put in during the pandemic and said she wants to keep the state career ladder in place, which serves as a schedule for when teachers can expect raises.
“Educators know I’m a teacher. I know the job and I’ve walked in their shoes,” Ybarra said.
Branden Durst is the self-proclaimed “conservative outsider” running for superintendent and he believes he’s the best candidate for voters who are ready to shake things up with the education system, he said.
“I know when conservatives look at this race they’ll see I’m clearly the person they should support,” Durst said.
Durst’s vision is to empower parents and allow them to fund the school of their choice, he said. Durst was a vocal advocate for House Bill 669, which would have allowed families to spend $5,950 per student on private school tuition and fees, laptops and other education-related costs out of state education savings accounts.
Empowering parents also includes moving some of the Department of Education’s other positions out of Boise and spreading them to regional offices in order to increase parental and taxpayer engagement, he said.
“Right now the department is very focused on servicing school districts,” Durst said. “And while I understand it’s important that we do that, my priority is to service parents.”
Durst is a former Democratic state representative who officially registered as a Republican in 2020, but he says he is the most conservative candidate running. Durst mentioned he received an endorsement from Bryon Zollinger, the District 33 GOP chairman and a former state representative for District 33. He also received a $5,000 donation from the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee.
Allegations of child abuse have come up with Durst and his wife, Cheri Durst. Durst was not charged in the case but the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office did charge his wife with misdemeanor injury to a child after law enforcement routed them the report for consideration and she entered a not guilty plea on March 1.
Branden Durst said he is confident the charges against his wife will be dropped.
“Wait a couple of weeks,” Durst said. “The legal process is very slow. This is going away.”
In January, disagreements over a rejected parental rights draft bill led to verbal altercations between Durst and a state senator that twice involved the Idaho State Police, according to Idaho Reports.
Afterward, the Idaho Senate Republicans issued a strongly worded statement, signed by every member of Senate GOP leadership, condemning Durst’s actions, describing them as “conduct unbecoming of anyone, especially a former legislator and current statewide political candidate.”
Debbie Critchfield, a former state Board of Education president, is running for superintendent after she said her experience with the board left her feeling like she couldn’t make the impact she wanted to.
“I determined that being an appointed volunteer was not enough for me to be able to address some of the (education) issues,” Critchfield said. “I’ve been frustrated for a number of years … I need to position myself in a different way to have influence at the Legislature, with the budget and policy.”
Critchfield believes she demonstrates stronger leadership qualities than what Ybarra has shown as superintendent. That, combined with her experience in the education field that she said Durst lacks makes her the ideal Republican candidate.
In addition to her state Board of Education experience Critchfield has served on various education task forces created by Gov. Brad Little and former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter. She was the chairwoman of the Public Schools Reopening Committee and she highlighted her role in getting students back into classrooms during the pandemic and parent back into school facilities for various events including such as sports.
“I think my efforts to lead school districts last school year are evident,” Critchfield said. “That type of work ethic and leadership is who I am.”
One of Critchfield’s main goals is to increase how prepared students are for the world after they graduate by requiring a financial literacy course for high school students. This also includes job readiness and she supports students entering less traditional academic routes such as enrolling in technical courses.
Growing up in a rural part of the state, Critchfield said she understands and wants to work to remedy the challenges for schools in those areas including attracting teachers, access to educational programs and finding housing for teachers.
“We need a partner and a champion at the state level to address (rural areas),” she said.
The lone Democrat running for superintendent is Terry Gilbert, a former president of the Idaho Education Association.
Gibert’s main motivation to run came from the exhaustion he felt from seeing the negative relationship between public education and the Idaho Legislature, particularly from a lack of funding, he said.
“Our Legislature has traditionally not treated education well and as a longtime citizen and educator I said ‘I want this to change,’” Gilbert said.
Gilbert began teaching in 1967 and has taught secondary-level English in rural Washington state and in the Nampa School District. His lifelong career in education makes him the best candidate for superintendent, he said.
He said his main goals for the office are to improve the relationship the K-12 system has with higher education and he feels many teachers in Idaho are teaching too large of classrooms, which prevents them from helping students the best way they can.
Gilbert noted a National Education Report which found Idaho ranks last in U.S. states in expenditures per student.
“I’m not satisfied with that. No one should be satisfied with that,” Gilbert said. “It’s drawing additional personnel from our students. Something is wrong.”
Gilbert also said he feels students are spending too much time learning from books and handouts instead of hands-on experience, which is leading to a decrease of high school students going on to college.
He recognizes the upward battle he’s facing of having voters who may write him off after seeing the letter “D” by his name, Gilbert said. He said he hopes voters can look past that because he believes education shouldn’t be partisan.
“(Service) should be the goal of public education. The superintendent position should not be partisan and I’d like to see that change so people would be free to think about the qualities of the people who are in that office,” Gilbert said.