Crowded race for Idaho's schools chief

 BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Finding more money for Idaho's schools while addressing the state's latest set of educational standards are some of the goals candidates running to be Idaho's top elected education official hope to address.

Four Republicans with educator backgrounds but no political experience are vying to be the next superintendent of public instruction. Whoever wins the May 20 primary election will face Democrat Jana Jones in November. Jones, a former chief deputy superintendent of public instruction, has no primary challenger.

Incumbent Republican Tom Luna announced earlier this year he would not seek a third term.

"The position is really about leadership," said GOP candidate Sherri Ybarra. "Idaho is looking for a superintendent with educational leadership, not a politician."

Ybarra has spent the past 17 years working several positions as a teacher, district administrator and curriculum director for the Mountain Home School District.

While a supporter of the 20 education reform recommendations laid out by the governor's task force, Ybarra said the list needs to be prioritized, pointing to improving literacy proficiency and finding a new system for tiered teacher licenses as top recommendations.

"This is how you attract and attain quality teachers," said Ybarra, who has a bachelor's from the University of Idaho in elementary education and a master's in educational leadership. She is also finishing her doctorate in education leadership.

GOP opponent Randy Jensen said he also supports the governor's recommendations, adding the state needs to begin implementing them immediately for them to be effective.

Jensen has spent the past 25 years serving as principal for William Thomas Middle School in American Falls. He was a teacher for four years prior to becoming principal and has a bachelor's from Idaho State University.

Jensen said he is wary of the state's newest testing system - called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. And he said he would make sure students or teacher measurement of success would not be based on the results until more data on the test's effectiveness became available.

In April, Jensen announced he would no longer be accepting campaign donations. Instead, he asked potential donors to give to Idaho's schools. Jensen said if he wins the primary, he will continue diverting donations to schools while campaigning. "I hope voters see that I am someone who really cares about Idaho's kids and schools," he said.

Candidate Andy Grover, currently superintendent of Melba School District, said he would advocate for more funding for Idaho's schools.

During the 2014 legislative session, lawmakers voted to increase the state's K-12 budget 5.1 percent. Grover praised the increase but said more is needed if the state is going to apply the task force's recommendations.

Grover started as a teacher in the Bonneville district, moving up to principal in Melba, where he eventually took over as superintendent in 2010. He earned his bachelor's degree from Boise State University, a master's from the University of Phoenix and is working on his doctorate from Northwest Nazarene University.

"Being successful at one school and one district are two different things," he said. "Being successful at one little thing and running the whole show are not the same things."

Three out of the four candidates said they supported the state's Common Core standards, which Idaho adopted in 2011. John Eynon did not return calls from The Associated Press.

The standards have split educators and lawmakers as schools this year began implementing the new measures. Some argue Common Core standards achieve more, while others claim they are too rigorous for certain grade levels.

Eynon has spent the past 10 years teaching at Prairie Junior-Senior High School in Cottonwood. Before that, he worked in curriculum publishing management and marketing. He holds a bachelor's degree from Azusa Pacific University.

Eynon has previously said the standards are an "experiment," contending they weren't researched enough, according to a Times-News report. Eynon said he was counting on GOP gubernatorial candidate Russ Fulcher to win office to help repeal Common Core either through legislative or executive means.

All the candidates agreed that no matter who wins the primary election, running against Jones in the general election will be a challenge. In 2006, Jones lost to Luna by little more than 11,000 votes.