Idaho business group ramps up push for education reform

‘The quality of education is really at the top of most people’s list of what companies are looking for,’ says one CEO.

THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEWDecember 10, 2013 

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Rod Gramer, left, and Rich Raimondi of Bishop Kelly flip pancakes during the United Way's annual Flapjack Feed fundraiser.

JOE JASZEWSKI — jjaszewski@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

Concerned about where Idaho’s education system is headed, dozens of CEOs have banded together to push for reforms and improvements, from boosting reading instruction in early grades to finding ways to get more kids to pursue education after high school.

“Education is the engine that pulls the economy,” says Rod Gramer, the new president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education. “Without a good education, my life would have been totally different.”

Gramer is a longtime Idaho journalist who headed news operations at TV stations around the country before returning to his home state this year.

Business leaders first formed Idaho Business for Education in 2005, but they’ve stepped it up this year, hiring full-time staff and mobilizing around three projects. They are:

• Improving early reading among Idaho children.

• Supporting the controversial Common Core standards for math and English in Idaho schools.

• Implementing the 20 recommendations of Gov. Butch Otter’s education stakeholders’ task force, which include a new, more generous teacher pay system and advancing students to the next grade based on mastery rather than age.

Gramer says the 85 current and retired CEOs and top executives who make up the group see the task force recommendations as a “strategic plan” for education in Idaho.

“Public education is like a $1.4 billion business in Idaho — we spend that much money,” he says. “There’s probably not a $1.4 billion enterprise in the country that doesn’t have a strategic plan.”

The business leaders like the task force plan, Gramer says, because “it was well-developed, it had a broad and inclusive process, it represented the stakeholders of the state well. … Everybody admits that it’s not going to be done in a year, but the important thing is that we stick with it.”

Skip Oppenheimer, CEO of Oppenheimer Development Corp. and the founding chairman of Idaho Business for Education, says that when he first convened two dozen CEOs to talk about forming the group, “There was quite a bit of interest in it right from the beginning. … We couldn’t find any states that were making a lot of progress in education that didn’t have business supporting some of the progress in a constructive way.”

The group is supported by membership dues and this year received a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation to support the group’s efforts for up to five years as it expands its work and moves toward financial self-sufficiency.

The group cites a Georgetown University study in its key policy priorities. The university’s Center on Education and the Workforce found in 2010 that by 2018, 61 percent of the nation’s jobs will require education beyond high school. The study, updated this past summer, now sets that figure in 2020 at 65 percent nationwide — 67 percent in Idaho.

But Idaho currently has one of the nation’s lowest rates of students going on to higher education after high school, and only 34 percent of its 25- to 34-year-olds have postsecondary degrees or certificates.

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