Thirty-one percent of Idaho residents over age 16 - 261,000 people - are deficient in reading, writing or math, according to a state Division of Vocational Education study.
Vocational Education officials are using that statistic to push for a $3.3 million program that would make basic education available without cost to 1,500 adults in Idaho and dramatically increase the state’s financial commitment beyond the $1.1 million it budgeted in 1995.
The plan is drawing praise from businesses, but criticism from many lawmakers.
About 13,000 Idahoans, or 5 percent of those who need assistance, got help improving literacy skills at technical and community colleges in 1995. Federal dollars paid most of the bill.
Idaho is among 20 states with literacy rates between 30 and 39 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Other states include Montana, Washington, Nevada, Arizona and Kansas. Twenty-one states report more than 40 percent of their population below standards.
Many corporations, seeing a gap developing between technical skills required for work and employees’ math and reading abilities, support greater state involvement in raising adult basic skills.
“The amount of state dollars allocated in the past has been practically an embarrassment,” said Betty Sims, Micron Technology Inc.’s educational coordinator. “I’m thrilled the state is ready to turn its attention to people who’ve probably been neglected.”
At J.R. Simplot Co., manual labor in potato and meat processing plants is diminishing. A poorly educated worker who could sort french fries and potatoes by sight now must understand computers and other technology.
“Without reading skills, employees can’t appreciably improve and in many cases can’t participate in training which requires reading and associated skills,” Simplot spokesman Fred Zerza said.
But legislative critics contend the plan begs the question of how Idaho’s public education system produced so many low-functioning people, and they complain that the proposal would duplicate services already offered at colleges and universities.
“People should be picking up the basic skills we’re talking about in the current system,” said GOP state Rep. Robert Geddes of Preston, chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.
Former House Education Chairman Ron Black considers the plan unnecessary.