The Spokesman-Review

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Guest commentary: Fund Idaho education system properly to serve state, students

Is education Idaho’s top priority?

Since serving on the governor’s education task force last year, I’ve been told repeatedly by people who have experience with government task forces: “You’ve done the easy part. Now comes the hard part: getting the plan implemented.”

Unfortunately, they are right.

The task force laid out 20 recommendations that offer a bold plan to guide our state toward having 60 percent of high-school graduates earning a post-secondary degree by 2020.

Educators and business and political leaders agree reaching that goal is necessary to grow our economy and ensure our children a prosperous future. As University of Idaho interim President Don Burnett told lawmakers, “Idaho has a workforce imbalance: an oversupply of workers with high school educations or less, and an undersupply of workers with post-secondary educations.”

That’s why we lead the nation in the percentage of minimum-wage workers.

We can change that. After the struggles over education of recent years, we finally have a consensus on a road map for Idaho’s public schools.

What we still need is a commitment from our elected leaders.

Gov. Butch Otter calls education his “top priority.” But an alternative state budget from former state economist Mike Ferguson demonstrates that Idaho can balance its books while taking much larger steps than the governor has proposed toward making our schools whole again.

Under Ferguson’s alternative plan that “reflects a different set of priorities,” the state could boost school spending next year by 8.3 percent instead of the governor’s proposed 2.9 percent.

The tradeoff? Investing $71.7 million in education and needs like giving teachers and state workers an overdue raise instead of putting it into savings accounts, as Gov. Otter proposes, and forgoing $30 million in unspecified tax cuts for top earners and corporations.

Ferguson maintains that Idaho cannot afford to cut taxes again and fund the task force recommendations.

While corporations and top earners have enjoyed $56 million in tax cuts in recent years, Idaho’s public schools faced some of the steepest funding cuts in the nation, in a state where schools are second to last in the country in spending per pupil. With the exception of Utah, our border states spend between 23 percent and 132 percent more per student than Idaho.

This year, 94 of Idaho’s 115 school districts have supplemental levies. Thirty-nine districts have gone to a four-day school week to save money. They are struggling just to keep the lights on and teachers in the classroom.

We must ask ourselves: Are we willing to do what’s necessary to create a school system that truly prepares our kids to compete with graduates from other states for today’s high-skill, high-paying jobs?

The public wants better for our schools. A broad coalition of business leaders, parents, educators and child advocates stands behind the Idaho Core Standards, which raise expectations for our students, too many of whom either do not go on to college or require remediation once there. The Legislature is even set to consider a bill proposing state support for pre-K education, an area where Idaho now sadly trails behind at least 40 states.

If our elected leaders take the same approach to education that they have for many years – offering minimal, inadequate support – we can expect the same results: grossly unequal opportunity and not enough graduates continuing beyond high school.

We have to do better. We can afford to meet our constitutional and moral obligation to give every child in Idaho an education that prepares him or her for college or a good-paying job.

I urge my fellow Idahoans to call or email their legislators and ask them to support the increased education funding proposed in Ferguson’s alternative budget.

We owe it to our kids.

Mike Lanza co-founded Idaho Parents and Teachers Together to help organize opposition to the Students Come First laws proposed by Idaho Superintendent Tom Luna, passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Butch Otter. He chaired the statewide Vote No on Props 1, 2, and 3 campaign that led to the repeal of those laws in the November 2012 election. He served in 2013 on Gov. Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education.


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