BOISE – Concerned about where Idaho’s education system is headed, dozens of CEOs have banded together to push for reforms and improvements, from boosting reading instruction in early grades to finding ways to get more kids to pursue education after high school.
“Education is the engine that pulls the economy,” said Rod Gramer, the new president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education. “Without a good education, my life would have been totally different.”
Gramer is a longtime Idaho journalist who headed news operations at TV stations around the country before returning to his home state this year to take the reins at Idaho Business for Education. Raised by a mom who worked as a cashier for 31 years after his dad died in a car accident, Gramer, 60, was the first in his immediate family to graduate from college.
Business leaders first formed Idaho Business for Education in 2005, but they’ve stepped it up this year, hiring full-time staff – Gramer came on in April – and mobilizing around three projects.
They are: improving early reading among Idaho kids; supporting the controversial Common Core standards for math and English in Idaho schools; and implementing the 20 recommendations of Gov. Butch Otter’s education stakeholders’ task force, which include a new, more generous teacher pay system and advancing students to the next grade based on mastery rather than age.
Gramer said the 85 current and retired CEOs and top executives who make up the group see the task force recommendations as a “strategic plan” for education in Idaho. “Public education is like a $1.4 billion business in Idaho – we spend that much money,” he said. “There’s probably not a $1.4 billion enterprise in the country that doesn’t have a strategic plan.”
The business leaders like the task force plan, Gramer said, because “It was well-developed, it had a broad and inclusive process, it represented the stakeholders of the state well. … Everybody admits that it’s not going to be done in a year, but the important thing is that we stick with it.”
Skip Oppenheimer, CEO of Oppenheimer Development Corp. and the founding chairman of Idaho Business for Education, said when he first convened two dozen CEOs to talk about forming the group, “There was quite a bit of interest in it right from the beginning. … We couldn’t find any states that were making a lot of progress in education that didn’t have business supporting some of the progress in a constructive way.”
The group is supported by membership dues and this year also received a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, funding the group’s efforts for up to five years as it both expands its work and moves toward financial self-sufficiency.
Washington’s comparable group is the Partnership for Learning, the education foundation of the Washington Roundtable.
Both cite the same Georgetown University study in their key policy priorities: The university’s Center on Education and the Workforce found in 2010 that by 2018, 61 percent of the nation’s jobs will require education beyond high school. The study, updated this past summer, now sets that figure in 2020 at 65 percent nationwide – 70 percent in Washington and 67 percent in Idaho.
But Idaho currently has one of the nation’s lowest rates of students going on to higher education after high school, and only 34 percent of its 25- to 34-year-olds have postsecondary degrees or certificates. Improving that rate is the top priority of the state Board of Education; it’s also the IBE’s top priority.
“The quality of education is really at the top of most people’s list of what companies are looking for,” Oppenheimer said. With IBE, he said, “We can have some influence with the policy makers. And we also have a certain standing, because business ultimately is an employer of graduates of our educational system.”