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News >  Idaho

Harder school coursework pushed

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – Idaho’s governor and state Board of Education joined national experts Friday in a strong pitch for making high school much more rigorous, but key state legislators in the audience questioned the proposal’s multimillion-dollar price tag.

“I shudder to think (of) the costs if we don’t,” state board member Sue Thilo of Coeur d’Alene told 350 educators, lawmakers, business people, parents and students from around the state at a high school redesign summit.

But House Education Chairman Jack Barraclough, R-Idaho Falls, said after the all-day meeting that though he considers the plan “just a dynamite proposal,” he is skeptical of the $16 million to $17 million annual price tag. “Whatever they propose, I’d cut it in half, because it’s always padded and there’s money in the system,” Barraclough said.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, also praised the program but questioned the cost. “It’s redirection – these kids are sitting in class doing something,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with raising the bar – raising the bar is what’s going to be needed to ensure future wage-earners in Idaho the opportunity to provide for themselves. That’s pretty important.”

But, he said, “I would like to see how they arrive at the cost. … I have had concerns in the past with financial estimates within the education community.”

The plan calls for a major beefing up of Idaho’s high school curriculum and graduation requirements, including requiring all students to take geometry and two years of algebra, upping the number of credits required to graduate, requiring more science and requiring middle school students to have a C average in all core classes to even get into high school. High school students also would be required to take college-entrance or vocational-school entrance exams in their junior year and would have to complete senior projects.

Experts from the National Governors Association and the Bush administration told the group that U.S. high school students are falling far behind their peers around the world, and every state is being advised to provide more rigorous high school preparation so graduates can compete, whether they go to college or enter the workforce. Idaho’s current statewide requirements are so lax that juniors and seniors can get by with taking nothing but electives, and seniors can coast through their final year with just two or three classes.

Henry Johnson, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, told the gathering that American students do well in elementary school, drop off in junior high, and by high school lag far behind other developed countries. “It’s unacceptable, and as a nation we will pay if we don’t do something about it,” he said.

A panel of educators from around the state who are already making major strides toward strengthening their high school curriculum shared their successes with the group – and all involved spending more money. In Coeur d’Alene, advanced learning facilitator Jim Facciano said the district won approval from voters for an additional property tax levy to help the school begin a rigorous “international baccalaureate” program. Sandpoint High School Principal Jim Soper told how he asked Coldwater Creek, a major local employer, for a $36,000-a-year, three-year grant to train all his teachers to be able to teach Advanced Placement courses.

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, a retired high school teacher, said, “I think the intent is good – to make high school much more rigorous. I truly believe we need to do that, especially at the senior year.”

But Sayler, who spent much of the summer in crowded property tax relief hearings around the state, said he believes Idaho already is under-funding its schools. “If we’re going to do this, there has to be some guarantee that the costs will be funded by the state and not by the local taxpayers,” he said. “If we’re going to create programs, we have to fund them so they can succeed.”

Educators in the audience had similar concerns. Jim Warren, superintendent of the Midvale School District, 100 miles north of Boise, noted that in his small district, only about 20 percent of the students now take Algebra II. Raising that to 100 percent would be a significant change.

Idaho currently requires only two years of math to graduate, and doesn’t name specific courses.

Hazel Baumann, assistant superintendent of the Coeur d’Alene School District, said the data showing that Idaho has a very high graduation rate from high school but a woefully low rate of those students going on to any form of higher education is “irrefutable.”

The reform proposals overall, she said, are “right on the money – I think high schools need to change.”

But, she said, “Past experience in this state is that great ideas get thrust upon us, and they’re not always funded. The great idea ends up getting watered down, and in the end, it’s not doable. If it’s funded and if the timeline’s reasonable, I believe we can do it.”

State Superintendent of Schools Marilyn Howard said, “I have just been around the state talking to school board members in every region, and school board members in every region told me without fail how desperate their circumstances are with the rising costs and the lack of support that they’ve had.” Their biggest fear, she said, was that the state would impose more unfunded requirements on them.

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne opened the summit meeting with an impassioned speech about how his administration supports education – even to the point of temporarily raising sales taxes during the state’s recent budget crisis to avoid cutting education. “Let me tell you, folks, when a Republican steps forward and raises taxes for education, that’s your litmus test. We are totally dedicated to the students. We will do right by them,” he vowed.

Kempthorne said he believes the state must demand more of its high school students, whether or not they’re college-bound. “Let’s not have our students say after they graduate from high school, ‘If only I’d taken this class … if only.’ “

Sayler said he has mixed feelings about the proposals so far, having watched some students juggle full-time jobs with their schoolwork and others who would balk at taking more challenging math courses.

“Certainly students that value education can get a good education – we’ve had a lot of our kids go on to the best universities, and they were challenged in high school,” he said. “But the kids who don’t care very much or whose families don’t value education can slide by, and that’s what we need to change.” If the proposals help those kids achieve more, that would be great, he said. “If they force them to drop out, I think that’d be a tragedy.”

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