Idaho Politics by William L. Spence: Idaho education task force didn’t do homework

WILLIAM L. SPENCE, politics reporter,Lewiston TribuneSeptember 17, 2013 

William L. Spence

If you listened carefully, you may have heard a rude noise when the recommendations of the Idaho Task Force for Improving Education dropped like cow pies last month onto the desks of 105 state lawmakers.

More accurately, the sound came from two specific recommendations: one to restore $82.5 million in state operating support, the other to pump an extra $254 million into a new "career ladder" teacher salary grid over the next six years.


Together, the two proposals would cost about $56 million per year. To put that in perspective, state general fund revenues have increased an average of $67 million per year over the past decade. Even going back 20 years, they've only grown by about $79 million annually.

What the task force essentially recommended, then, is that 71 percent to 84 percent of all new revenue between now and fiscal year 2019 be dedicated to boosting teacher pay and restoring operating funds.

Although Gov. Butch Otter has voiced support for restoring the operating funds, the salary proposal will be a tougher sell - not the least because Idaho's school system isn't achieving the results needed for student success.

"Based on our current standards, 90 percent of Idaho school children are at or above grade level in reading, and about 85 percent are proficient in math," Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna says. "But when they go on (to college or post-secondary training), almost half of them need remediation. They aren't prepared for what awaits them."

The obvious question, then, is why would lawmakers pour more money into the same system - and the same teachers - and think the results will magically improve?

That's not simply a definition of insanity. It's insanity with compound interest.

The task force acknowledged the need for systemic changes when it recommended a series of reforms: Use higher standards to measure performance, encourage collaboration and innovation, drive autonomy and accountability down to the local district level, invest in additional classroom technology and, most important, shift from a time-based system of advancement to a content-based model where students must demonstrate mastery of the material before they move on.

The task force was less bold, however, when it came to reforming teacher compensation. It avoided the fundamental issue, which is that teachers are either part of the problem or they aren't.

If they're not part of the problem - if most teachers are caring and effective and doing everything they can to help students improve - then providing an extra $254 million for teacher salaries is nothing but a feel-good move. It tells them their efforts are appreciated, but it won't buy taxpayers anything in terms of higher student achievement.

What's worse, it rewards one exclusive group of employees while almost certainly leaving little money in the bank to reward the other 24,000 state employees who don't work in public education.

And if teachers are part of the problem - if the educators in our schools today are incapable of producing significant improvement in student performance - then pouring more money into salaries makes even less sense. It once again doesn't buy taxpayers anything.

The only way raising teacher salaries leads to higher student achievement is if the proposed "career ladder" also includes a corresponding emphasis on firing less capable teachers to make room for those who can deliver better results.

The task force danced around this issue during its meeting in late August. There was some agreement that movement up the ladder should take into account things like a teacher's annual evaluation and student performance, yet the plan leaves open the possibility of what Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, calls "unwarranted upward mobility," where mediocre teachers earn substantially higher pay just because they've been around longer, not because they're better educators.

My guess is lawmakers will sidestep this whole funding issue next year by focusing on the systemic reforms.

That's essentially what happened in 2009 with the governor's transportation proposal. Despite strong evidence that Idaho's highway maintenance and repair needs were substantially underfunded, the Legislature balked at raising taxes and fees. Before they would even consider providing more money, lawmakers insisted that the Idaho Transportation Department demonstrate it was using its existing funds in the most effective manner possible.

Expect lawmakers to take a similar approach here: Show us schools can use their current funding better before asking for a lot of new money.

At some point, though, they'll have to return to those three salary options: give more money to good teachers even though it won't improve results, give more money to ineffective teachers even though it won't improve results, or give more money to mediocre teachers in the faint hope that they'll be fired so better performers can take their place.

Hence the cow pie analogy: No matter what they do, this task force recommendation will leave lawmakers smelling bad.

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