David Adler: Invest in education for Idaho's economic future

November 14, 2013 

When it comes to educating our children, the state of Idaho has had commitment issues.

The education deficit in the Gem State, a patchwork quilt of frustrating challenges and hurdles, is real and substantial, despite denials of those who refuse to see it. It can be measured in the lack of early education programs, inadequate legislative funding, students' substandard performance in reading, absenteeism and the high number of high school graduates who require remediation classes when they enter colleges and universities.

The sharp edges of the education deficit have inflicted deep pain on the lives of Idahoans. Its real-life impact can be glimpsed in low wages, lost career opportunities, the loss of jobs to the state, an immobile work force and dimmed hopes and fortunes.

The years of legislative indifference to the importance of education, reflected in inadequate funding and a lack of enthusiasm and appreciation for the creative suggestions of education professionals and efforts of private organizations to improve the quality of education in Idaho, has taken its toll.

The weight of responsibility does not, of course, fall solely on the shoulders of legislators. The governor needs to lead, parents need to cure the problem of chronic absenteeism, educators must strive for effective teaching methods to meet the higher Common Core standards that are critical to the future of our children, and business and community leaders must rally their constituents to the cause of education. Without a greater, sustained commitment to education, the state's future is bleak.

Fortunately, various legislators have been stirred to action.

In a powerful voice of support for Idaho Common Core, Sen. John Goedde (R-Coeur d'Alene) and Rep. Reed DeMordaunt (R-Eagle), the respective chairs of the Senate and House education committees, recently declared: "Idaho's standards have not prepared students for life after high school." There is proof, they observed. While "more than 80 percent of students were performing at grade level in core subjects in K-12 education, nearly half of those same students would be required to take remedial classes once they get to college or into the work force."

The problem of remediation can be traced to inadequate preparation in earlier years. Recent reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, as cited by the Statesman, indicate that some 32 percent of Idaho's fourth-graders weren't reading proficiently in 2013. The long-term prospects for students' success is deeply undercut if students are not good readers when they are in the third and fourth grades. Indeed, they are more likely to drop out of school.

The problem of ineffective reading, in turn, can be linked to the lack of students' preparation for school. That's precisely why Rep. Hy Kloc's (D-Boise) proposal for a pilot program to introduce preschool education in Idaho deserves a full hearing when the legislature convenes in January.

Early education programs are not new. As Kloc has noted, they've been introduced, but have never found traction within the Legislature. But new studies and success in early education across the nation, including programs initiated in "red" states such as Oklahoma, have generated new momentum for the concept.

Executives at such corporate giants as Procter & Gamble and Macy's have touted as a common-sense measure, the establishment of pre-kindergarten education. National studies, as Rep. Kloc has noted in op-ed pages in Idaho's newspapers, demonstrate that "for every $1 invested in quality preschool programs, there is a return from $3.50 to $17 in economic value. That's impressive by any calculation."

Indeed, it should warm the hearts of every capitalist — and legislator — interested in the educational and economic future of Idaho.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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