Monday evening, Democrat Terry Gilbert and Republican Debbie Critchfield, candidates for Idaho’s superintendent of public instruction, debated key policy issues, including academic performance, school choice, and education spending. Both candidates advocated for failed policies, like spending more on the public education monopoly, and ultimately failed to boldly stand for parents’ right to direct the education of their children.
One of the first questions candidates were asked concerned students’ declining results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), otherwise known as the Nation’s Report Card. Critchfield acknowledged that only around one-third of students performed proficient or above in math and reading. However, she expressed the need for “a celebration of sorts for the work we’ve been able to do” in addressing post-pandemic learning loss.
Although student test scores on the English language arts section of the Idaho Standards Achievement Test are back to pre-pandemic levels, many students are still scoring below proficient.
Idaho’s results on the 2022 NAEP show declining academic performance from the last administered test in 2019. In math, the percentage of fourth grade students who scored proficient or above declined from 43.02% to 36.33%. The percentage of eighth grade students declined from 37.34% to 32.43%.
In reading, the percentage of fourth graders who scored proficient or above declined from 37.44% to 31.91%, and the percentage of eighth graders who scored similarly declined from 37.08% to 32.12%.
Although scoring “proficient” on the NAEP is not the same as testing at grade level, it is not an unreasonably high bar. Rather, demonstrating proficiency on the NAEP means that a student has achieved “solid academic performance for each NAEP assessment. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”
Idaho’s students must be able to master basic reading, writing, and math skills so that they are prepared to achieve future personal, professional, and academic success.
Although school choice programs enjoy robust support from parents, neither candidate staunchly supported school choice programs that would serve the unique needs of students and families.
Gilbert expressed clear opposition to the idea of school vouchers. He said, “If you want to kill public schools, let’s adopt a voucher program. … We don’t have to ruin our democracy in our country by gravitating to a voucher program.” Gilbert also expressed the opinion that sufficient options exist for families, who can choose from charter schools, homeschools, public schools, and magnet schools in the current system.
Why would school choice “kill” public schools? Public officials know that if given the choice, many families could find better education alternatives outside of the public school monopoly. Every kid deserves the opportunity to receive the best education possible. But candidates such as Gilbert prefer to funnel students into a one-size-fits-all education system that stifles student opportunity and potential.
Contrary to Gilbert’s pronouncements, the competitive benefits of school choice programs could actually improve existing public schools. After all, as research has shown, “school choice is the rising tide that lifts all boats.”
As I have previously written, “in the five states with the strongest education choice programs, inflation-adjusted spending per student has actually increased since 2002. In addition, when students leave public schools through a choice program, per-student funding in public schools increases because public schools retain money for students they are no longer educating.”
Additionally, school choice could actually improve the academic results of existing public schools. Twenty-five of 28 studies on the competitive effects of choice programs on the academic performance of public schools found that school choice produces positive effects; only two studies reported negative effects, and just one found neither positive nor negative effects.
Critchfield took an ambivalent stance on the question of school choice programs. She stipulated that any school choice program in which public funding is used at private institutions couldn’t come at the expense of public schools or rural students, who have “limited choices.” However, education funding exists to serve students, not prop up a government monopoly.
Additionally, both candidates ignored the reality that rural students now have many educational options outside of brick-and-mortar public schools. These options include micro-schools or pods, homeschooling, homesteading, online education, and more. Yet many of these families cannot afford alternative education. Why should such a burden exist for rural students, or any students, who deserve access to the best education possible?
Special session funding
Candidates were also asked how the $330 million allocated to K-12 education by Gov. Brad Little and the Legislature this September should be spent. Gilbert said that half the money should be funneled into failed literacy programs, while the other half should be spent to increase salaries for teachers and support professionals. Critchfield said that the money should be spent on career technical education, vocational programs, and public-private partnerships and apprenticeships. Both candidates want to use the funds to prop up the existing government monopoly.
Idaho’s K-12 education funding should follow students, not systems. After all, this money doesn’t belong to schools; it is meant for the purpose of educating children.
Just like in other areas of life, families should be able to choose the educational option that works best for them and that best aligns with their family’s needs and values. We don’t force families to use their food stamps at Albertsons instead of WinCo. Indeed, families are demanding choices in education. Recent polling indicates that 75% of Idaho parents support education savings accounts, and 70% support school vouchers.
Universal school choice that is available to every Idaho student regardless of income would ensure that all students in Idaho can access the educational environment that works best for them. Offering students the best possible education instead of defending a government monopoly should be the top priority of the superintendent of public instruction. Unfortunately, neither of Idaho’s current candidates are willing to boldly stand for the needs of students.
You can watch the debate in full and evaluate the candidates’ answers for yourself here.