Here’s a tip for anyone thinking about seeking public office. Don’t run for state superintendent of public instruction, because it is by far the worst job in Idaho politics.
I have known most of the superintendents since the 1980s, and all were targets for criticism. Jerry Evans was a Republican who was too liberal. Marilyn Howard was a Democrat who couldn’t communicate with Republicans. Tom Luna successfully pushed through a series of ambitious reforms that ended up being roundly rejected by Idaho voters. The only one I didn’t know was Anne Fox, who I’ve been told was the worst of them all.
So, now we have Sherri Ybarra who is fresh from an election that was “too close to call” as the votes were being counted. Ybarra has Idaho Education News, among others, watching what she does and reminding everybody what a horrible job she is doing as the state’s leading voice for public schools.
You’d get a different picture talking with Ybarra one-on-one. She’s engaging, gracious and passionate about education. She smiles and laughs easily. She’s bright, confident and speaks in plain English — which are nice traits to have in public speaking.
Her biggest problem, perhaps, is she’s not much of a politician — which creates a lot of challenges in a political world. Legislators say they never see her … that she doesn’t attend committee meetings … that she’s uninformed … that she’s inaccessible … and that budget writers prefer Gov. Brad Little’s proposals over hers. One legislator flatly described her as “incompetent.”
And that’s just what her fellow Republicans are saying. Little is getting the props for education, and deservedly so. As one member of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee told me, “I’ve had more contact with this governor’s staff than I’ve seen in the last four years put together.”
But to give all the credit to the governor, and none to Ybarra, is a slap in the face to women holding high political offices. Lord help us if we ever get a female governor.
Ybarra’s overall agenda, which she has been talking about for the last four years, is mostly a mirror image to Little’s. They both want more funding for public schools, more money for teachers and think sharp reading skills are a good thing in the early grades. They may disagree on some line items and dollar amounts (in my world, the only numbers I truly understand are bogey, double-bogey and occasionally “par”). But there’s no great divide between the governor and superintendent. Ybarra is glad that Little uses his bully pulpit to promote education.
Here’s the bottom line, she says: “We have had more than $100 million in increases going to education every year I’ve been here, and this is my fifth year. That’s a big deal — not where the superintendent’s budget differs from the governor’s. We’re in the same book and on the same page, although we may not always be exactly on the same line.”
As Ybarra sees it, her measure of success is the dramatic funding increases and what has been done with that money to improve education. “That’s for the students of Idaho, and being Idaho’s top advocate for education, that’s how I gauge my success.”
To hear others talk, the more accurate measures are when she shows up to work every day and when she leaves … the days when her parking space is vacant … and how many “crucial” meetings she attends, or misses. If those are the benchmarks of success, then Ybarra needs to spend more time on the road talking with real people, and less time inside Boise’s political zoo. Her office can run itself, and the department has at least 130 capable people who are more than happy to keep their butts warm sitting in meetings.
The big thing is “the kids are winning,” she says. “Of course, there are problems and we need to talk about where improvements should be made. But we also need to celebrate, no matter how small it is, the successes we’re having in education. Graduation rates are rising, and kids are taking advantage of advanced opportunities. Students are getting more college credits while in high school. Test scores are rising. Our investment in reading is working.” The list goes on …
Ybarra sure is doing a rotten job as state superintendent, isn’t she?
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Chuck Malloy, a longtime Idaho journalist and Silver Valley native, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.