Guest editorial: Choice for schools chief comes down to anti-Luna or unLuna

Idaho voters may not yet know what they want in their next state schools superintendent.

But they know what they don’t want — anyone with the faintest resemblance to retiring schools Superintendent Tom Luna.

Luna, of course, had been limping along toward political oblivion ever since voters rejected his school overhaul package in the 2012 election. His measures to undermine teacher collective bargaining, impose a merit pay system and steer cash from teacher salaries toward technology and purveyors of for-profit online instruction drew a heavy rebuke.

By margins as high as 66.7 percent, Idaho voters had repealed those laws — the first time they had taken such a step since 1936.

To consider how toxic the Luna brand has become, consider the fate of his surrogate — Melba School Superintendent Andy Grover.

If you agreed with Luna, then you probably liked Grover. Among the four GOP primary candidates — Cottonwood educator John Eynon, American Falls school principal Randy Jensen and Mountain Home school administrator Sherri Ybarra — only Grover said he supported the Luna Laws.

He also drew support from people who had been Luna allies. Among them were Bonneville School Superintendent Chuck Shackett and New Plymouth School Superintendent Ryan Kerby, as well as Melaleuca, the Idaho Falls consumer products company that bankrolled part of the campaign in defense of the Luna Laws.

Grover came in last place with 23.3 percent of the vote, more than 7,000 votes behind Ybarra, who stunned the state with her 28.5 percent win.

Of the GOP field, Ybarra was the least Luna-like. In November, she’ll face former Chief Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Jana Jones, the Democrat who narrowly lost to Luna eight years ago.

The contest all but guarantees an end to the Luna era by:

n Shattering the glass ceiling. Not since Donna Jones resigned as state controller due to severe injuries she suffered in an automobile accident has a woman held statewide office. Nor has a woman represented Idaho in Congress since Helen Chenoweth-Hage retired in 2001.

n Electing an educator, not a politician. Luna was first, last and always the latter. Service on the Nampa School Board and as a political appointee in George W. Bush’s Department of Education put him in office. He lacked experience and training as a classroom educator — which undermined his credibility with teachers in the field.

Jones and Ybarra are just the reverse — candidates for political office who are creatures of the classroom. Jones developed a preschool program in Idaho Falls and served in the upper ranks of the state education department; Ybarra spent her career at the Mountain Home School District as a teacher, district administrator and curriculum director.

Extending a friendly hand toward early childhood education. Jones chastised the 2014 Idaho Legislature for ignoring Rep. Hy Kloc’s plan to pilot test pre-K programs in Idaho. Ybarra criticized the Idaho GOP platform’s condemnation of pre-K funding. By contrast, Luna was so resolute in his opposition that he even refused to accept federal money aimed at merely upgrading standards for early childhood education already taking place in day care programs.

n Presenting a united front. Both opposed the Luna laws — although Ybarra failed to vote in the 2012 election. They support the Common Core program — which Eynon and conservative gubernatorial candidate Russ Fulcher pledged to block. And each has promised to back the 20-point reform package inked by Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter’s education task force.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, and co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget panel, was speaking for many when she told The Associated Press: “When they get in a debate, I don’t know what they’ll disagree on.”

All of which beckons a refreshing alternative to eight years of polarization that marked Luna’s tenure.