State schools chief candidates talk Common Core, leadership on KIVI debate

Idaho Education NewsMay 1, 2014 

John Eynon, Andy Grover, Randy Jensen, Sherri Ybarra

John Eynon, Andy Grover, Randy Jensen, Sherri Ybarra

Mark Wednesday night’s Republican state superintendent’s debate down as a three-way tie.

Because a lack of statewide name recognition hampers all four candidates seeking the GOP nomination in the May 20 primary, the three who participated in KIVI’s live television forum likely each scored points.

Andy Grover, Randy Jensen and Sherri Ybarra benefitted from a platform where they could make their cases to voters. Grangeville teacher John Eynon declined to participate – citing conflicts with his teaching obligations.

The hour-long debate was cordial and free of attacks. The fast-paced, 90-second format covered a host of hot topics – including the Meridian book controversy, Common Core standards, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests, budget constraints and early childhood education.

Here are three takeaways from the debate:

Common Core standards

All three candidates reiterated support for Idaho Core Standards, the new English language arts and math standards being used for the first time this year.

Grover, superintendent of the Melba School District, said the standards still allow local districts to decide how and what to teach. The standards simply indicate what students should know as they complete each grade. One of the most difficult jobs associated with the change has been making sure parents understand what the standards do and don’t do.

”Having high standards is exactly the direction we need to go, and those Common Core standards, that’s exactly what they are,” Grover said.

Ybarra, the federal programs director for the Mountain Home School District, said the standards are “good for kids,” but said they are lacking in some areas.

“I will tell you they need some work,” Ybarra said. “Nothing in there speaks to research-based ideas and ways to help students get there (to reach the standards) if they are not coming into the classroom with that skill already.”

Jensen, principal of William Thomas Middle School in American Falls, also backed the standards. But he took multiple opportunities to emphasize school, teacher and student accountability should not be tied to a single high-stakes test. He also said it is critical that the state give teachers the resources they need to adapt to new standards.

“The biggest concern with Common Core standards is making sure we take the time to do it right,” Jensen said. “We need to have continued professional development to train teachers the best we can to help implement them the best we can.”

Early childhood education

Jensen offered one of the evening’s few specific proposals, unveiling what he called the Read 20 program. Jensen called on all parents to read to their children for 20 minutes every night, from birth past kindergarten. He said his reading initiative would improve literacy rates and better prepare children for kindergarten.

Ybarra cited what she described as an overwhelming body of research showing the benefits of pre-K. For every $1 invested in early childhood education, she said, Idaho can expect an $8 return.

When asked how she would persuade fellow Republicans who oppose state-funded pre-K, Ybarra appeared confident, then softened her approach.

“I am not weak in my ability to lead others,” said Ybarra. But she also said the state needs to address K-12 before turning to pre-K.

Grover, meanwhile, challenged parents to take a more active role in their students’ education and development. He said students’ ability to succeed at school hinges on cooperation between schools and parents.

Leadership style

All three candidates touted their extensive education backgrounds.

Ybarra described herself as a lifelong academic and candidate for a doctoral degree. She called her experience and academic background “a formula for success.”

When asked about the intersection of politics and education, Ybarra did not hesitate to show where her priorities lie.

“I don’t think Idaho is looking for a political leader,” she said. “They are looking for an education leader.”

Grover said fiscal stability is vital, as is an understanding of budgets and their effect on districts. He said his experience leading a district and serving on statewide education committees suits him well to serve as the state’s schools chief.

“Working collaboratively, or as a team, is what is going to make this thing work going forward,” Grover said, playing up his legislative connections.

Jensen also issued a call for teamwork, saying he would unite parents, administrators, teachers and politicians behind him.

“Whichever candidate is best able to work collaboratively with all those groups and bring them together for the best education for all of our students is the person who should get this job,” Jensen said.

What’s next?

Wednesday night’s debate will air Saturday at 4:30 p.m. on KNIN, Channel 9 in the Treasure Valley.

All four Republican candidates have been invited to participate in a City Club of Boise forum, set for 11:45 a.m. Monday at the Grove Hotel.

At 8 p.m. May 8, the GOP candidates will again square off in a televised debate broadcast statewide on Idaho Public Television.

Read more of Idaho Education News' coverage of the debate on its website.

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