If you are a Democrat from Ada County (or heck, anywhere in Idaho) you are probably freaking out that a Republican got elected for Superintendent who is unqualified, lied about her academic career and plagiarized a section of her campaign website. I speak of course about Sherri Ybarra.
Democrat Jana Jones came close to defeating Ybarra. She did much better than any other Democratic statewide candidate that night. But the truth of the matter is if Jones had won it would have made little difference. Despite the Superintendent’s ability to direct educational policy he/she does not control the purse strings. The legislature does and thus they hold the majority of power in setting Idaho’s educational agenda. More specifically, the GOP legislative super-majority does.
It is important to remember (and hard to forget) that Idaho is a strong one party state. Republicans occupy every statewide office, state or federal, and control exactly 4/5ths of the state house (56/14) and senate (28/7). This means that while the political concerns for educational policy will be similar to other states (reelection, results) the ideological direction of such policy will be one sided. In Idaho this has meant increased focus on test scores and teacher accountability.
The legislature guards its power to direct educational policy through the budget voraciously. Considering over 60% of Idaho’s budget goes towards education this makes the legislature a huge player in the process. Whether it is JFAC, the House/Senate educational committees or the entire legislature, they set the policy direction of education by what they fund/don’t fund.
I personally witnessed this when I worked for the legislature in 2013. The Senate Education Committee staged a revolt over fellow Republican Tom Luna’s attempt to fund pilot technology programs. While the budget passed the committee it failed to pass the whole Senate. Ultimately, Luna backed down, the Education Committee inserted statutory language into the bill and it passed overwhelmingly soon after.
Despite the legislature’s power yhr Superintendent has broad flexibility in usage of the educational budget. But, for the most part, the legislature designs the budget to constrain the Superintendent. That is largely what the debate over the Education Budget was about in 2013.
There are other players involved in the process as well. Most notably the State Board of Education. The State Board approves administrative changes made by the Superintendent (who is a member of the Board) and the Educational Department. If the legislature does not disapprove the rule it goes into effect.
Combine the power of the legislature and the SBOE and you see how the Superintendent’s authority is greatly limited. Consider the recent example of Tiered Licensure that recently passed the State Board and is likely to be allowed to go into full effect by the legislature next session.
The proposal was in the works well before Jones or Ybarra even faced off in the general election and was passed by the SBOE before the new Superintendent entered office. It is conceivable that had she been elected Jones could have fought the law but she would have likely lost the battle. Ybarra, for her part, seems content with managing the new requirements.
There are other factors I will mention only in passing because unlike the above they are not institutional. The partisan tilt of the legislature does not just ensure a specific policy direction but also conflict between a Democratic Superintendent and a GOP legislature. Jones made no bones about it that she would fight the legislature during the campaign. Specifically, she spoke glowingly of the IEA and negatively of Tiered Licensure.
Further, she would have likely sparred with a conservative State Board of Education and been at odds with the Governor. Likely budgets would not match, compromise would be hard to find and the next four years would be marked by dysfunction at the administrative/political level.
Idaho has endured this before when Superintend Marilyn Howard ran the show. She constantly fought with Governor Kempthorne and the legislature and she ardently opposed the one cent sales tax hike to fund education that passed in 2006.
It is likely those who voted for Jones were voting for a new direction in Idaho education. The vote margin Jones racked up in Ada County certainly indicates so. Many Jones voters were worried Ybarra was not qualified or would be led around by an anti-teacher, anti-education legislature and gubernatorial administration. But, also keep in mind many Jones voters also supported Republicans down ballot ensuring a GOP legislature. Many also split their tickets for Governor Otter and his team. Perhaps they would not have if they had considered the institutional and political barriers they were putting in Jones place had she won.
Regardless, it really does not matter who won. The SBOE and legislature are the ultimate power centers in Idaho education and the Superintendent largely implements their will.
Addendum: No matter what happens Democratic voters are sure to see Ybarra as unqualified and a failure. That is how deep some of the opposition to her candidacy and soon to be administration runs.