Reader's View: Idaho’s students, teachers deserve host of changes

September 13, 2013 

After eight months of intensive work, Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force For Improving Education has issued a set of recommendations for Idaho’s public schools.

The sweeping set of 21 recommendations range broadly. They include:

• Advancing students based on content mastery rather than seat time.

• Embedding time for teacher collaboration and professional development in school schedules.

• Adopting a career ladder compensation model for teachers.

• Restoring cuts of recent years to schools’ operational funding.

• Successfully implementing the Idaho Core Standards.

The full recommendations are here.

Now what?

At our last task force meeting, on Aug. 23, we were told to expect Gov. Otter to summon us together again to hear what he intends to do with our recommendations. Ultimately, many of these would require the governor’s and Legislature’s approval.

Over the past several months, when asked whether I thought this task force would produce anything of value, I always said I was optimistic because there were smart, good people serving on it — including many educators. But these recommendations exceeded even my highest expectations.

The task force has shown what kind of ideas can emerge when everyone with a stake in public schools gets an equal seat at the table, rather than the state’s political leadership alone calling the shots. I was consistently impressed by the respect with which members treated one another, and how difficult it was for bad ideas to stay afloat in that atmosphere.

I know some people wish the task force had gone further. Idaho rightly had high expectations for it. But reaching consensus in a large, diverse group isn’t easy. And without the participation of all stakeholders and representation from legislators, nothing would happen.

Who would have predicted all that has happened since state education Superintendent Tom Luna dropped his Students Come First proposals on the Legislature in January 2011? I certainly did not plan to become an education activist and spend hundreds of hours of my time on these issues.

But after Idaho voters repealed the “Luna laws” last November, it didn’t feel to me like we were finished. Defeating bad ideas wasn’t enough; we needed to take the next step and get behind some good education policy.

Now we have the kind of opportunity that comes up once every 20 years or so. We are not done.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, of Coeur d’Alene, said that our recommendations could “break the bank.” Indeed, Otter and the Legislature will have to wrestle with how to pay for these improvements, which could run an estimated $350 million over time. In fact, the governor suggested recently that the recommendations could be phased in over three to five years.

But looked at from another perspective, the potential cost actually recovers only about two-thirds of the decline in state investment in schools in recent years. From 1980 through 2000, state spending on public schools consistently hovered around 4.5 percent of personal income. But in most years since 2007, it has been around 3.6 percent. That difference represents, cumulatively, about $500 million less investment in our kids’ schools.

After all the public attention to schools over the past three years, after Idaho’s historic repeal of Students Come First, and the work of this education task force, the Legislature and Otter have a monumental choice to make: They can either invest in our schools, or explain to voters why our schools, our economy, and our children’s future are not worth that investment.

The Legislature has to hear from us in the coming weeks and months. We will be asking our supporters to call and email legislators, urging them to support these task force recommendations.

It’s time to give our children the schools they deserve.

Mike Lanza of Boise is co-founder of Idaho Parents and Teachers Together and a member of the governor’s Task Force for Improving Education.

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