Can Branden Durst win the superintendent’s race? It’s not far-fetched
Branden Durst kept a promise on Thursday morning.
At the start of a Idaho Business for Education forum, the Republican state superintendent nominee said he would not alter his campaign message based on his audience.
Mission accomplished. Durst said a lot of things the BIE didn’t want to hear. He said he opposed the all-day kindergarten bill directed at Gov. Brad Little’s office. Durst said he changed his mind about pre-K because he doesn’t think the research supports it. And he called out the BIE for opposing a school choice bill on constitutional grounds.
Durst likely didn’t win many votes Thursday from BIE members, the state’s top CEOs. But he showed everyone exactly how he thought he was going to win the May 17 GOP primary: by running against Sherri Ybarra and Debbie Critchfield.
“There are two opposing visions of what our schools need. … There are those who believe we must continue to double down on a system that is not working for many parents. …And then you have me, someone who comes from outside, who recognizes that, maybe we have to do things differently.
Of course, Durst’s political reinvention is not new to anyone who has paid attention. The former Democratic lawmaker has been courting Idaho’s hardline conservatives since entering the superintendent race 14 months ago. Durst actually started changing long before this race; he ran as an anti-establishment underdog in a 2018 Boise school board election, finishing a distant fifth in a field of six candidates.
A loss like that is not exactly a predictor of future success. But the superintendent’s primary is an entirely different breed. Durst is playing a blatant game – and, of course, critics will dismiss it as a cynical game – at conservative voters. But it’s the bloc that often decides closed Republican primaries.
It helps Durst’s electoral calculus that Ybarra and Critchfield play more or less on the same track: moderate to center-right voters. And when both candidates play up their resumes — including Ybarra’s seven years as state superintendent and career in the classroom and Critchfield’s seven years on the State Board of Education — they bolster Ybarra’s position. Durst as an outsider.
During Thursday morning’s forum, Ybarra and Critchfield landed a few light digs on each other. After Critchfield pledged to push for a course in financial literacy, Ybarra said the topic was already covered by state standards in economics. After Ybarra touted improvements in the five-year graduation rate — taking into account students who need longer to complete high school — Critchfield pointed out that Idaho’s four-year rates have come down. (They’re both right, by the way.)
Ybarra spent much of Thursday’s one-hour forum touting his teaching background and record in office. It’s a nuanced case: She admits that students have suffered learning loss during the pandemic, but says the state’s commitment to keeping schools open has prevented the gap from being even greater. Some talking points are sketchy: She continues to rely on a 2018 U.S. News and World Report article that ranks Idaho No. 5 for college and career readiness, a suspect ranking that, more than all, reflects the number of Idaho students taking the SAT.
Critchfield has spent much of his time showcasing his credentials — his time on the state board, his time as an administrator and employee in the Cassia County School District, and his work co-chairing the group of Little’s 2019 K-12 job. It’s a long resume, but not an underdog resume. Rather, Critchfield draws on his experience, saying it makes the “problem-solving leader” the state needs. In most races, Critchfield would be the clear establishment contender.
Granted, Durst isn’t entirely functioning as an outsider. He points out that he would be the first former lawmaker to serve as an Idaho state superintendent — following the conventional career arc for elected superintendents outside of Idaho. “This job is bigger than just a classroom,” Durst said Thursday.
Operating on a platform of parental rights and school choice, Durst manages to move further away from Ybarra and Critchfield. This became all the more apparent when questions turned to private school tuition credits – and whether these should extend to religious schools.
Ybarra offered a resounding no – emphasizing that his job is to serve as superintendent of public instruction.
Like Ybarra, Critchfield said she doesn’t want the money diverted from public schools. But she also said she was not opposed to the dollars following students, signaling her support for a private school tuition credit bill.
“I’m a yes and a no on that,” she said. “It’s an unresolved issue in the state that needs some leadership.”
For Durst, school choice is the solution to all education ills – from poor academic performance to overcrowded public school buildings. And this is also the way to change the educational institution.
Durst lashed out at the BIE for his testimony against an education savings account bill that died this month before the House Education Committee. He said the BIE should not call the bill unconstitutional, while an attorney general’s opinion said the bill would survive a legal challenge.
“Anything I propose can be done,” Durst said. “I would like the IBE to correct the record and acknowledge that it misled the legislature on this.”
Rod Gramer, CEO of the BIE and Thursday’s moderator, pointed out that his group has a top lawyer in its corner: former attorney general and Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Jones. “We will just have to agree to disagree on this constitutional issue.”
Disagreeing and playing the contrarian role fits perfectly into Durst’s campaign. And closed GOP primaries have a way of rewarding opposites. One, Janice McGeachin, was elected lieutenant governor in 2018. Now she’s leading an anti-establishment campaign against Little.
Industry leaders who are BIE members may not be looking for someone to disrupt the system. Diehard Republican primary voters are a different animal.
There is nothing subtle about Durst’s election plan. And there’s nothing extravagant about it either.
Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education politics and education policy. Look for his stories every Thursday.
A deeper listen: Kevin Richert interviews primary candidates on his weekly podcast. Click here for the Debbie Critchfield maintenance; click here for the Sherri Ybarra maintenance. Branden Durst has been invited for an interview.
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