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OPINION: ‘Politician’ is not always a dirty word

by CHUCK MALLOY/Guest Opinion
| May 19, 2023 1:00 AM

We all know what’s going to happen in three years … it’s so predictable.

Attorney General Raul Labrador will square off with Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke in an epic Republican primary battle for governor. Or, maybe Gov. Brad Little will run for a third term just to keep Labrador out of there — although I’ll believe that when I see it.

Here’s another option that not a lot of people are talking about. How about putting State Superintendent Debbie Critchfield in the mix? She’s not dropping hints about running, subtle or otherwise. She’s far more interested in the job that she has. But she has qualities that could serve her well in the political world, regardless of where she goes.

For one thing, she’s a politician — and that’s a good thing. Critchfield’s predecessor, Sherri Ybarra, spent eight years saying she was not a politician, and legislators rarely saw her. Critchfield, by contrast, was a fixture in education committee meetings, or anything related to public schools.

“I want to be at the Capitol,” she said. “Everything that happens during those three months … that’s how the schools are going to operate. That’s where they pass the laws and do the budgeting. I can’t imagine being here (at her office) while things are taking place there (at the Capitol).”

Another mark of a good politician — which serves her well as the state superintendent — is the ability to work with those who disagree with her. Sen. Tammy Nichols of Middleton, a leader of the Legislature’s conservative Freedom Caucus, told me she’s more at ease communicating with Critchfield than the governor. That’s probably because Critchfield took the time to attend the senator’s town hall meeting to discuss Nichols’ proposal for Education Savings Accounts, which failed in the Senate.

“I wanted to hear firsthand what it was all about,” Critchfield said.

As it turned out, there’s some common ground with what Critchfield and the senator want in the large scope. Critchfield says Nichol’s plan was not much different from the superintendent’s push for an Empowering Parents grant that is aimed at helping families take charge of learning tools outside the classroom.

As with Nichols and other conservatives, Critchfield is all for school choice. “Idaho has every possible offering of school choice that you can think of, including educating kids at home — and there are no regulations. To me, that’s the ultimate in school choice. The messaging is that Idaho does not have school choice … yes we do.”

Critchfield knows there will be disagreements here and there. She welcomes one-on-one visits with legislators to discuss those differences — another mark of a good politician.

The legislative session, as rocky as it was on high-profile social issues, turned out to be good for Critchfield, the governor and education in general. Lawmakers provided solid funding for schools and teacher salaries, the governor got through his Idaho Launch program for post-secondary education that was panned by conservatives, and Critchfield got the thumbs up for financial literacy education.

It wasn’t all easy, of course. For instance, getting through a Career Technical Education bill turned out to be tougher than she thought. Her proposal received a warm greeting initially, even from staunch conservatives, but some legislators bailed out when the Idaho Freedom Foundation gave it a negative rating. There will be other battles with the IFF down the road, with plenty of debate about what’s being taught in schools and the government’s role in education.

“There is that faction that will object no matter what we do,” Critchfield says. “We hear about curriculum choices, returning to the fundamental basics and people asking why the government is involved in education. But if we believe in not only our constitution, but if we fundamentally agree on having an educated citizenry, there are certain expectations that we collectively are invested in and I believe public education is one of them. I’m hoping that with a changed leadership and a change in culture at the department that we can provide an overall improved tone about the value of education. We’ve got to restore that value.”

Critchfield wasn’t going to solve all disputes during three months of a legislative session, or a few weeks of visiting educators throughout Idaho. But she’s off to a decent start as the state’s superintendent, which is more than can be said for at least a few of her predecessors over the years.

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Chuck Malloy is a longtime Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.