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Retired teacher takes over House Education Committee

Sadie Dittenber - 01/04/2023

Former educator and school administrator Julie Yamamoto will lead the House Education Committee when the Legislature reconvenes next week. Her goal, she says, is to create a collaborative lawmaking environment and push forward robust legislation to serve Idaho students and families.

Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, decided she wanted to become a teacher when she was in elementary school. She watched her own teachers, and noted in her mind what she liked and didn’t like about how they ran their classrooms.

Her dream quickly became a reality. After graduating from the College of Idaho and earning a doctorate from the University of Idaho, Yamamoto spent 32 years as a teacher and administrator in Canyon County schools. She started as a language arts teacher in the Caldwell School District, oversaw the opening of the new Caldwell High School as principal, helped open Caldwell’s Thomas Jefferson Charter School and was planning principal at Ridgevue High School when it opened in 2016 to serve students in the Vallivue School District.

“But you don’t retire from life,” the Republican lawmaker told EdNews in a recent interview. “You just find other ways to serve.”

Yamamoto won her race first legislative race in 2020 against now-Caldwell mayor and former state Rep. Jarom Wagoner. She took office that fall, and sat on the House Education Committee for her first term. She ran unopposed in the 2022 Republican primary, and defeated her Democratic challenger Robert Scoville in the November election.

Now in her second term, she’ll head the influential House Education Committee, replacing Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, who still sits on the committee.

Yamamoto cautions against division, predicts policy discussions

Yamamoto says she wants the House committee to be a “safe environment” for lawmakers to trust and listen to one another, and compromise to create legislation that suits Idaho students and families.

“The best decisions get made when you are willing to let other people voice their concerns, their opinions, their perspective,” Yamamoto said. “And if we are willing to believe that all of us together are smarter than any one of us individually, then really good things can happen.”

She isn’t intimidated by the challenges this year could bring.

The House chair is “choos(ing) not to be concerned” about a Senate Education Committee that features more hardline conservatives, or the record number of freshman lawmakers — one in three legislators will be new. She believes they will be able to build partnership across parties and levels of seniority.

But the committee will be taking up some of the most divisive education issues in the Legislature, like school choice.

Education Savings Accounts and other forms of school choice legislation will be up for debate in the House committee, according to Yamamoto, who in March voted against the last ESA bill to go in front of the committee. She felt the bill was a “copy and paste” version of an Arizona law, and hadn’t been tailored to the needs of Idaho families.

“That doesn’t, to me, seem like the way that we should approach legislation,” she said. “But we will have that discussion in the House and Senate committees.”

Other issues on the House committee’s agenda include a switch to enrollment-based funding, legislation on gender identity and school bathrooms/locker rooms, parental engagement, and teacher recruitment and retention. And Yamamoto anticipates many discussions over how to spend the $330 million set aside for K-12 by the Legislature during the 2022 special session.

Yamamoto also has her eye on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Debbie Critchfield’s priorities, including boosting career-technical education and workforce readiness programs. Yamamoto, alongside the Senate Education Committee’s new chairman Sen. Dave Lent, sat on Critchfield’s 22-member transition team. She helped the group examine the K-12 budget in the wake of the election.

Critchfield, who was sworn in Monday, says Yamamoto caught her attention as a new legislator when Critchfield was president of the State Board of Education. Over the course of two years, Yamamoto became a trusted resource for the now superintendent.

“I know her to be someone of high integrity and honesty,” Critchfield said. “When you’re having a conversation with her, you know she’s representing who she is. I didn’t worry that when I turned my back or left her office that she was going to change courses.”

And Rep. Lance Clow, the House committee’s former chairman, says he has a lot of confidence in Yamamoto going into the session based on what he’s seen of her experience and leadership style.

“She’s been a head of schools for charter school, she’s been a principal, she’s been in education,” Clow said. “She brings a lot of experience…frontline experience that I’ve never had. She’ll do a fine job.”

Clow is set to lead the House Business Committee, but kept a seat on the education committee.

Yamamoto says she’s taken pointers from Clow’s leadership. His willingness listen to the community and be open to new ideas, she says, is something she’ll carry into her leadership.

And she cautions her fellow lawmakers against divisiveness.

Hearing many voices from all sides of an issues is something to value, not balk at, she says.

“I choose to believe that we can find common ground if we truly say that we want what is best for the children of Idaho and for Idahoans,” she said. “Just because you don’t agree with me does not make you the enemy.”

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