Guest Opinion: Governor's task force needs input from everyone

GUEST OPINION: EDUCATION

April 5, 2014 

Ever since I became an education activist three years ago, to fight against a set of laws that I believed were wrong, this effort has been about one thing for me: trying to help Idaho's public schools.

I'll admit, there have been times when I wished it would go away. But all in all, it has been very gratifying, from the repeal of the Students Come First laws to my proud service last year on Gov. Butch Otter's Task Force for Improving Education.

When task force Chairman Richard Westerberg called me earlier this week to inform me that I was being removed because I was working for A.J. Balukoff's gubernatorial campaign - for the man running against Gov. Otter, who appointed Westerberg to the State Board of Education - I was caught by surprise. Just a month ago, Westerberg had called asking me to sit on one of the committees that will refine some of the recommendations the task force issued last August.

It's worth remembering why a governor's task force on education exists at all: because voters repealed the three Students Come First laws in November 2012. That vote was a stinging rebuke of Gov. Otter's strong endorsement of those laws.

With his credibility on education at stake, Gov. Otter set up his task force - and he deliberately avoided handpicking its members, allowing the participating organizations to choose their representatives. Otter said then, "I'm not going to direct the discussion or the issues covered in any way."

The objective was to give all stakeholder groups an equal seat at the table - initiating the kind of process that had been notably absent when the Students Come First laws were written.

That process, I believe, was the key to the success (so far) of the task force. With 31 individuals and organizations at the table and no one able to control the agenda, we reached overwhelming consensus on 20 far-reaching recommendations - a better outcome than many of us had anticipated.

We've subsequently seen better relations between the three major stakeholder groups - the Idaho Education Association, the Idaho School Boards Association, and the Idaho Association of School Administrators - than those groups have enjoyed for at least a few years, as they collaborated on pushing the Legislature to support the recommendations.

The state board announced this week that the task force has 16 new members, six of them legislators, and 10 original members will not sit on either of the two new committees named so far. A third committee is yet to be named.

I want to see the task force succeed. The 20 recommendations represent an excellent starting point for making real progress for Idaho's public schools. Some of them are expensive and require the support of the Legislature, but I hope legislators keep in mind that Idahoans want top-notch schools and the best opportunities for our children.

The cost to Idaho of not creating a school system that prepares our kids for good jobs in a competitive world economy will be far greater. We can already see the results of disinvesting in education, with our state rising to the top in minimum-wage jobs while falling to the bottom in personal income. Idaho's economy and today's generation of young people will not thrive if we continue down that road.

If there's one lesson from the battle over the Luna laws that we've heard repeated ad nauseam, it's this: process matters. Parents, teachers and the public have to believe our elected leaders are acting in the best interests of Idaho's schoolchildren - and giving everyone an equal seat at the table.

Boise parent Mike Lanza, who co-founded Idaho Parents and Teachers Together, is communications director and education adviser for the A.J. Balukoff for Governor campaign.

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