Three members of the governor’s education stakeholders’ task force, which delivered a near-unanimous package of 20 recommendations to improve Idaho’s schools to Gov. Butch Otter this year, told the City Club of Boise today that it’s a mistake to focus on the potential price tag, which could eventually stretch to hundreds of millions of dollars.
“I’ve heard a lot of pushback about the cost - sticker shock’s got everybody,” said Richard Westerberg, a state Board of Education member who chaired the task force. “But I’ve yet to hear the first real criticism of the recommendations in the plan on its function. They’re good recommendations. Can it all be funded in one year? Of course not.” Westerberg said the recommendations are a framework, and the state needs to come up with a plan to accomplish it over time, while also filling in the details. “There’s a whole lot of heavy lifting that needs to be done here,” he said. “You’ve got a really good plan from a bunch of smart, dedicated folks saying, ‘Here’s what we think could help.’ I think the Legislature really wants to do right this year. I’m hopeful.”
Linda Clark, superintendent of the Meridian School District, the state’s largest district, said across the nation, states spend an average of roughly $10,000 per student to educate youngsters, while Idaho spends less than half that. “Can you fund a ‘world class’ school system at 50 percent of the average?” she asked. Years of budget cuts have cost her school district $10 million a year in state funding for basic operations, she said, and left it 117 teachers and 19 administrators below the state allocation. “That results in very high class sizes and very large work portfolios for folks. I’m concerned that as we track that over time, it will have an impact on achievement.”
Mike Lanza, a Boise parent who played a key role in the campaign to overturn the “Students Come First” school reform laws, said, “We’re not attempting to take a small step. … Because we’ve been disinvesting in education, we’ve put ourselves at a disadvantage.” He said, “It’s not hyperbolic to suggest that Idaho is on its way to becoming the Mississippi of the 21st century if we don’t start to do something about this. … We’ve basically created an inexpensive school system, which is not necessarily compatible with a great school system.”
Westerberg said the latest estimates show that by 2020, 60 to 66 percent of jobs in Idaho will require some education beyond high school, whether that’s college or a one-year certification. But now, he said, just over a third of the population gets that. “This state just is not ready for the future of employment,” he said. Meanwhile, the task force members noted that as Idaho has crimped its education funding, it’s fallen in relation to other states in personal income, and risen to first in the nation for the proportion of minimum-wage jobs. All three said a better education system is key to Idaho’s economic future, and noted that, surprisingly, the 31 diverse members of the task force virtually all agreed on what’s needed.
“While this level of collaboration and collegiality is not unprecedented in Idaho, it has been a very long time,” Clark said. Said Lanza, “There’s not a lot of disagreement … on what it takes to deliver education effectively. … We need the political will to do what many people understand needs to be done.”