October 23, 2021
Branden Durst, who was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 2006 and 2008, and to the Idaho State Senate in 2012, is running to become Idaho’s next State Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Pocatello-Chubbuck Observer recently conducted an extensive interview with Durst, both in-person and via email. Our questions, and his answers, are below:
Do you believe Critical Race Theory is being taught and Social Justice Indoctrination is being carried out in Idaho’s public schools, and, if so, what would you do about it if elected?
This isn’t a question of belief, this is a matter of fact. Critical Race Theory and it’s
derivatives are being taught in Idaho public schools. As I stated during a presentation to
the Lt. Governor’s task for, there are a variety of examples, one of which included ELL
content standard. The ELL content standard incorporates by references a group called
WIDA, which is a promoter of CRT and other social justice indoctrination. Idaho
taxpayers annually pay WIDA $610,000 to indoctrinate our students.
The State Board of Education is seeking to further enshrine CRT doctrine into Idaho
education by pushing a so-called “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” policy. I am
completely opposed to this policy change.
In addition, we have seen reports from several school districts throughout the state that
have sought to include CRT concepts under the guise of SEL.
What role should parents play in the education of their children and what rights should they have with respect to public school policy?
Parents are the primary and most important stakeholders in a child’s education. Idaho
Code and the Idaho Constitution recognize the importance and rights of parents, but
unfortunately these statutory and constitutional provisions are regularly ignored.
As state superintendent, I will give parents an actionable voice in a way that has never
been seen in the state department of education. Parents will have an active role in
development of public school policy at every level.
What are your thoughts on Common Core?
As a state senator I was vocally opposed to Common Core before it was officially
adopted. My opposition has been consistent ever since. Common Core has a variety of
issues, but the most problematic, in my view, is that it has had the impact of creating a
barrier between parents and students.
I have made repealing Common Core a central component of my campaign and when I
am elected, I will follow through on that campaign promise and make doing so a top
priority. That includes making a motion at my very first meeting as a member of the
state board of education to repeal Idaho Content Standards (Common Core) and
appoint a committee, led by parents, to draft new standards within six months.
What is your position on school financing, particularly with respect to local levies?
I believe Idaho’s public school financing system is a disaster. Our state funding formula
is nearly impossible for anyone to understand without considerable time to study it. I
have proposed the Empower Parents in Education Act (HB 62) to address this problem.
The Act would streamline the school funding process and make it much easier to
understand for everyone, especially the public.
One component of the Act also addresses the second component of this question.
School district’s reliance upon local levies is unsustainable and improper. The Act
discourages school districts from passing local levies by reducing their “home base
allocation” if their levy rate exceeds the state average.
What is your view of school choice, specifically, should government agencies be able to place any restrictions on homeschooling?
The Act creates the most expansive school choice program in the United States. I am the
only one running with a realistic school choice program that would expand real school
choice so dramatically. Every family who chooses to participate would receive an annual
ESA of approximately $5000 to spend on any qualified educational expense of their
choice. That includes purchasing curriculum, paying for an educator to teach in a
cooperative pod, private school tuition and much, much more.
This program does not create a new funding stream, but instead leverages the existing
K-12 appropriation. This is a conservative, Republican plan that is widely supported by
many groups including the Idaho Freedom Foundation, Catholic Schools of Idaho and
With regards to homeschooling, Idaho has some of the best homeschooling laws in the
country and I will continue to support those laws. In fact, in the development of the Act,
we brought in board member from Home School Idaho to ensure that our proposal was
acceptable to them. We received feedback from Home School Idaho and HSLDA and
incorporated it, verbatim, into our proposal. That sort of receptiveness to
homeschooling families has not been seen by any other superintendent candidate or
Do you support or oppose mask mandates and/or vaccine mandates?
Absolutely not. That is a parent choice. The state should never interject itself into any
decision that is, at its core, a parental right and responsibility. As state superintendent, I
will leverage every bit of my statutory authority to put pressure on school districts to
eliminate any mandates and also use my position on the state board of education to
impose a prohibition on mask and vaccine mandates statewide at public schools.
You have proposed setting up 14 State Department of Education (SDE) Regional Offices. Wouldn’t this lead to an increase in the size of government and additional costs to the taxpayer? Further, many Idahoans are interested in less interference from government. Wouldn’t this proposal lead to the opposite?
First, let me clarify what I am proposing. I want to take 14 existing FTEs that are currently located at the SDE office in Boise and move them to offices throughout Idaho. These staff members would collocate in existing government office space to eliminate or severely mitigate operational costs. The decentralization of the bureaucracy and government closer to the people is a conservative ideal. These regional offices would exist to support taxpayers when dealing with their local districts and in the implementation of education savings account program. Making government more accessible would make the administration of the ESA program more efficient and would result in the need for less government over time. I would also audit the department and identify waste and overlap so as to be to reduce the size of the department. It is my goal to have less people working in the department at the end of my term, not more.
You have proposed setting up a portal that you say parents who want to homeschool can use to research the background and credentials of prospective teachers they might want to contract with. Why is this necessary, what would it cost, and how many additional SDE staff would it require?
This is a part of my larger school choice plan as seen in the Empower Parents in Education Act (HB 62). HB 62 has been vetted and is supported by a variety of groups including Idaho Freedom Foundation, Catholic Schools of Idaho, Homeschool Idaho and others. The purpose for this portal is to provide families who wish to use their ESA funds in a community pod easy access to information regarding potential educators for their children. Traditional homeschooling families would not be implicated in any way. As of today, the credentialing and background checks of all credentialed educators in Idaho is collected by the department of education as required by Idaho Code. Rather than force families to search for this information, I am simply proposing it be made available on a voluntary basis. No teacher would be required to participate in the portal if they didn’t want to and no parent would be required to use the portal if they didn’t want to. Connecting willing educators with interested parents will make the administration of the ESA program more efficient and reduce costs. In addition, because this information is already collected, there would be no additional costs or staff required to make the information publicly available. The net impact is no additional costs and no new staff with opportunity to reduce costs over time.
Do you believe that all teachers (i.e., those working in public district, charter, private, religious, homeschool) should be credentialed?
No. In fact, as it relates to public schools, I believe credentialing requirement should be a local school district/charter school decision. They should have the authority to hire anyone who they believe is qualified to teach. If someone is capable of teaching and has a desire to do so, government should get out of the way.
What is your view on the accreditation of schools?
Accreditation is a complicated issue. Cognia (formerly AdvancedEd) is the primary school accrediting agency in Idaho, but there are other national organizations that do so as well including ACSI, ACTS, AACS and others. While I fully support accreditation and believe it is something that is worthwhile to seek out, it should not be mandated, especially for private schools. It also should not be a requirement to receive funds from parents through the proposed state ESA program. I am interested in making as many education choices available to parents as possible. Many parents will prefer a school that is accredited, while others may not place much value on accreditation. Ultimately, that is an individual decision and I support it being that way.
You have said that you would like to see the state take control over curriculum selection from local school boards not complying with the law with respect to, for example, imposing Critical Race Theory (CRT). Couldn’t this lead to the SDE taking control of curriculum over disagreements regarding sex education and Common Core? In an administration supporting CRT, couldn’t this idea be used to force such ideas on a local school district?
I do not support “the state tak[ing] control over curriculum from local school boards”. What I have said is there must be an enforcement mechanism for districts that refuse to comply with state policy. In my view, it is likely unconstitutional to withhold state funds, so there must be a different option. I support local districts making decisions about curriculum. That is the proper place for that decision to be made. With the example of CRT, if the state board of education chooses to ban its teaching, which I fully support, and a local district does so anyway, what should be done? I have suggested that the state board provide feedback to the district and let them know the curriculum they are using violates state policy. It would be my goal to support the local district in finding curriculum that does not violate state policy. Again, the state would be in a supporting role, not a directing role. If, however, the local district continued to defy the state policy, then I believe it may be appropriate for the state to step in and provide its statutory provided oversight. I do not know exactly what that should look like. In a podcast interview, I said that if after an extended period of time (years, not months) one option would be that the state board would have to preapprove the curriculum prior to its adoption by the local school district. That would be a last option and one that I personally do not like. I am open to other suggestions. With that being said, we do have to draw a line in the sand. CRT is an insidious threat to the health of our republic. Title IX, Section 1 of the Idaho Constitution states, “The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” This is constitutional provision is incredibly instructive to me. We have an education system to preserve our republican form of government. If there are theories being taught that antithetical to this principle, then they must be stopped. Think of it this way, let’s say a school district decided to start teaching white supremacy theory, which was supported by the local board of trustees and the majority of patrons. Should the state turn a blind eye to that local decision? I think most people would agree that it would be necessary for the state government to intervene and rightfully so. In my view, CRT is other side of the same coin and the response should be the same. Both CRT and white supremacy theory undermine our republican form of government and subsequently intervention is necessary.
You’ve stated that you’d like to see all 8th grade students develop a high school program for themselves that would lead to a “meaningful diploma.” What would this look like? You’ve mentioned that not all students have a desire to go to college, with some more interested in pursuing trades as an impetus for this idea and that, for example, not all students need to take geometry. Would you elaborate? If students develop plans that include courses not offered by a local school district, would they be mandated to develop new courses to accommodate the students’ desires?
Education needs to be meaningful. I am proposing that in eighth grade, each public school student take a variety of assessments to measure their interests and motivations. We then use the information we gather to help them chart a path towards graduation and life after graduation. Why we require all students who are going to be on completely different life trajectories to take the same pathway through high school doesn’t make any sense to me. And, as it turns out, it doesn’t make sense to many of them either. This results in underperformance and underutilization. What I am arguing is that we allow students to choose a pathway that will lead them to where they want to go after high school. What about those who are career-technically minded? I think we need to have their graduation requirement be more inline with their chosen vocation. For example, a student in the trades may find a technical writing course more valuable than a traditional English 12 course. As it stands today, that isn’t an option because a student must take English 12 to graduate, without exception. We are forcing square pegs into round holes and it isn’t serving anyone’s interests. I am envisioning three pathways to graduation with their own unique graduation requirements. There would be a college bound path with even more academic rigor, a CTE path and a standard path. This would not require districts to add any new courses.
I understand that you support requiring cities of a certain size to elect school board representatives by zone, rather than at large. Why do you see this as a positive step? Why the size requirement?
Actually, I support cities of a certain size (100,000) being required to elect city councilmembers by zone rather than at large. I actively supported legislation to that end, which culminated in the passage of HB 220 (2020). I would have been comfortable with the number being slightly lower, but this was the number that was ultimately agreed upon. Idaho Code already requires that school districts elect trustees by zone with the only exception being Idaho’s three charter districts, which are exempt from this requirement.
You’ve proposed that 60% of education money goes to parents, and 40% stays with the current establishment. Doesn’t this mean that the education bureaucracy gets 40% of the education budget for every student who is not enrolled, and they are not teaching? That seems like a lot of money to be handing out for not doing something. Your thoughts?
My proposal, HB 62, allocates 62% of the existing K-12 appropriation to education savings accounts, 30% to a home district allocation, five percent for premium payments to LEAs and three percent to the small district stabilization fund. No other state in the country uses their existing K-12 appropriation to fund an ESA program. Would I prefer the amount going to ESAs be higher? Yes, most likely, however there are political realities that we ignore at our own peril. This is already an extremely ambition plan that would be the first of its kind in the nation. It would create the most expansive school choice program in the United States. We must keep in mind the oath to uphold the Idaho Constitution as well. Article IX, Section 1 of the Idaho Constitution states, “it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” I take supporting the constitution seriously. My plan balances this constitutional imperative with the Idaho Parental Rights Act (32-1010, Idaho Code) and the interest of giving parents the authority to choose the educational environment that is best for their child with the least amount of governmental involvement possible.
SDE lists 14 departments on their website. Do you see any of these as unnecessary or bloated in size? Would you eliminate or reduce the size of any part of the SDE? Are there departments that should be expanded? Are there additional roles that should be undertaken by the SDE? If so, what are the costs and how many additional personnel would be required for them?
As I mentioned in an earlier question, it would be my intention to conduct an audit of the department to identify any waste or bloat. Based upon my experience, there is most certainly some that exists, but I think it would inappropriate to speculate on that at this juncture. However, I can assure the public that when my term expires, there will be less FTEs and overall cost at the department than there were when I started. I also anticipate a significant reorganization of the department to aid in the new direction of being parent focused. This will not require additional FTEs, but may require the reassignment of staff. In addition, I would anticipate creating a new deputy level position that oversees our school choice initiative and provides greater support to non-public schools and their families. This new position will not result any new regulation in any way shape or form of non-public schools or families including homeschoolers. Rather, it will be a resource with the sole intention to support, not to regulate. There may be some who argue that creating this new customer focused department could be used to regulate families by a different administration. That is true, however, if a different administration wants regulate families they will find a way to do it regardless. Again, my vision for the department is to be a customer service agency who is committed to serving the public first and foremost not the system. This is a conservative approach to governance and one that I will take very seriously.
What do you view as the proper role of government?
This is a fundamental question. I believe the proper role of government is to provide the lightest possible touch needed to protect our liberties and freedoms. As Thoreau stated in Civil Disobedience, “that government is best that governs the least.” That, in my view, makes two important observations. First, government is a necessity. Second, government should only exist to the extent is necessary. Idaho’s Founders determined that education was a proper role of government. In fact, they believed an educated society was a necessity to support our republican form of government. I agree. However, unlike the conditions that existed in the late 19th century, we now have the ability to access a variety of education environments beyond the government school. To that end, I believe we can meet this standard by providing families meaningful access to educational opportunities both public and non-public. In addition, I believe that if government is a necessity, then we should ensure that government is serving the people, not itself. This goes back to the idea of conservative governance I spoke about in a previous question. Government that is decentralized and accountable is conservative governance and that is what I support.
I understand that you’ve been a registered Democrat your entire life but reregistered as a Republican in December, 2019. Why the change?
Actually, I have never been registered as a Democrat. I was, however, elected as a Democrat to the Idaho Legislature. Those who knew me in the legislature, like Russ Fulcher and Raul Labrador, always wondered why I was a Democrat. After all, my voting record was conservative. For example, in my last session, my Freedom Index Score was one point behind Russ Fulcher, which put me ahead a vast majority of the Republican Caucus. So yes, I was elected a Democrat, but I always legislated like a conservative, because ultimately that is my worldview. Which would you rather have, someone who has always been registered as a Republican and voted like a Democrat or someone who was a Democrat, but voted like a conservative?
To get to the second part of the question, I’ll provide some more background. My family is all liberal Democrat. Growing up, I had a ton of admiration for my grandfather (and always will), a retired school principal. He was also a Democrat, albeit the JFK variety. In addition, as a child growing up in Idaho, I saw Democratic leaders who were in the JFK model and that made sense to me. They were socially conservative and fiscally moderate. They viewed environmental policy from the perspective of the worker. That is who I identified with. When I ran for the legislature in 2006, I was 26 years old and I saw the Democratic Party beginning to fall further to the left. This alarmed me. I decided that if I ran and won a seat in the legislature, I’d be able to push the party back towards the middle and JFK party that I grew up with. I was wrong. What I found was that liberal powers that be were like a locomotive. The train had left the station and nothing I was going to do would stop it. Then I relocated to Washington state in 2014. Living in Western Washington, I had the opportunity to “see behind the curtain”. By that I mean, I got to see what it looks like when liberal government is in full control. It terrified me. In 2016 I ran for the legislature in Washington as a conservative Democrat, frankly more conservative than the “Independent Republican” who had filed. And in that primary I was told by the county Democratic party that I was not a Democrat. They were right. I got up out of the meeting and haven’t voted for a single Democrat since. I returned home to Idaho in May 2018 and registered as a Republican so I could participate in 2020 Republican primary. I have financially donated to conservative Republican candidates for a decade (yes, even when I a Democratic legislator). I have been a delegate to state convention. I have authored part of the GOP platform. I have volunteered for GOP campaigns. None of my opponents can say the same.
Is there anything else that you’d like our readers to know about you, your campaign, or your ideas?
I am the conservative running for state superintendent. My two opponents are establishment Republicans who want to support the existing system. They support Common Core. They support Critical Race Theory. They don’t have a plan to expand school choice. They have been silent on vaccine mandates and mask mandates. Conversely, I am against CRT and Common Core and have made their elimination a cornerstone of my campaign. I have comprehensive plan for school choice. I am completely against mask and vaccine mandates. I am being supported by well known an vetted conservatives including Christy Zito, Bryan Zollinger, Bryan Smith, Bjorn Handeen, and more. These people know me and they believe in my conservative credentials because my track record speaks for itself. If you’re hesitant to support me, I encourage you to speak to one of them and find out why they support my candidacy. And of course, if you have any questions, you’re welcome to contact me directly and I’ll do my best to answer any question you have as honestly and thoroughly as I am able.
Editor’s Note: You can learn more about Branden Durst and his campaign to become Idaho’s next State Superintendent of Public Instruction by visiting his campaign Facebook page, here: Durst for Idaho, FB
Click on the image, below, to visit the Durst for Idaho website: