The state Board of Education overruled beleaguered state Schools Superintendent Anne Fox’s objections on Tuesday and accepted $448,000 in federal money for the Goals 2000 public education improvement program.
At the same time, the board made it clear that it finally intends to assert its full policy-setting authority over Idaho’s education system for kindergarten through high school.
“It’s really important,” board member Thomas Dillon of Caldwell said. “We have the responsibility for K through 12. We shouldn’t be putting out fires.”
Fox, a former Post Falls schools superintendent and founder of Coeur d’Alene’s Children’s Village, declined to comment on the board’s action. At least one board member questioned whether she realizes she is being stripped of much of the authority the board voluntarily had ceded to her predecessor, Jerry Evans.
In a position paper she presented to the board, Fox said her reasons for rejecting the Goals 2000 money “mirror the convictions of the many Idaho voters who placed me in this office.”
Fox won election to the state office after campaigning for a back-tobasics approach to education heavy on testing and discipline. She also called for rejecting the federal grant, saying it would bring undue federal intrusion into how Idaho runs its schools.
Fox also argued in her position paper that the federal grant would require Idaho to do more plans and reports on school reform which will duplicate plans and reports already completed.
The dispute over the Goals 2000 program was the most obvious conflict with the seven board members. However, there were other flash points through the six-hour session with Fox, who has been under increasing criticism for a series of political and administrative missteps in her brief tenure:
Board members criticized her for creating an ombudsman and trying to create a school building design division without their approval as required by law. In fact, President Roy Mosman said creating an om budsman violated the law, and board members directed her to bring those kinds of organizational changes to them in the future.
“It was never done with any intention of upsetting you,” Fox said.
Board member Curtis Eaton moved to halt her ad hoc investigation into test scores at a Twin Falls elementary school. Her authority to intervene in a local district’s operations was questionable to start with, and while she claimed she had been asked to conduct the probe by local Superintendent Terrell Donicht, School Board Chairman Steve Tolman said in a letter that was not the case. Eaton only agreed to drop his opposition after Fox promised to personally oversee the investigation and involve school district officials.
The board tentatively agreed to get involved in legislative matters, something it had left to the state schools superintendent in the past.
The board even ignored Fox’s objection to move the Goals 2000 discussion ahead of other items on the agenda for her office.
“For you to take the position that 227,000 people of this state took part and parcel everything you ran on is an erroneous position,” Mosman told Fox, who won the superintendent’s office with 57 percent of the vote last fall.
Fox, who sat silently through much of the discussion about her department, created a controversy over the Goals 2000 program when she campaigned against it, then indicated she would let the board decide whether to accept the money, but then turned around again and said she intended to reject it.
She claimed accepting the cash would force so-called outcomebased education on the state system.
However, her critics repeatedly argued that there were fewer strings attached to the Goals 2000 grant than to almost any other federal program. And an attorney general’s opinion issued last Friday said there was absolutely no connection between Goals 2000 and outcomebased education.
In fact, Mosman accused Fox and her supporters on Tuesday of engaging in misleading and flatly erroneous statements about the program.
House Appropriations Chairman Kathleen Gurnsey, R-Boise, said acceptance of the federal money had become “a personal thing” with her because she understood Fox had agreed not to stand in the way of the state accepting the cash. That purported deal headed off legislative attempts to assure the state would accept the money.
“A promise is a promise, and if it helps you get what you want and then you change your opinion I have a problem with that,” Gurnsey said.
From the opening of Tuesday’s meeting it was clear the board intended to assume as much control over public education as it could. For the first time in anyone’s memory, public school issues were at the top of an agenda always dominated in the past by higher education.
“That’s not an accident,” Mosman said.
The board agreed to set up a special committee on legislation so it would not find itself only reacting to initiatives from Fox or anyone else.
Dillon said the board needs to make “recommendations to the Legislature of the things we support and the things we do not support. We need to be pro-active not just reactive.”
Board members also indicated that even though state law gave the schools superintendent hiring and firing authority over the Department of Education, the organization of that department and its operations are clearly the board’s responsibility under the Idaho Constitution.
“There is ultimate authority with this body,” Eaton said.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.