David Adler: Summer is here, but our focus should still be education

Special to the Idaho StatesmanJune 12, 2014 

The end of the school year signals the start of summer vacation for Idaho's students, but candidates for office should not seek a hall pass from their responsibility to focus on the No. 1 issue in the fall campaign: education. In this past legislative session, lawmakers agreed that education funding is the most important issue facing the state. It should be true of the next session as well. Legislators have made a start in restoring education funding, but digging our way out of a deep hole requires a sustained effort.

It was reported again this week just how deep a hole the Legislature had dug with its spare spending for public schools. Idaho's recession-era spending cuts were the steepest in the United States. Another regrettable "first" for Idaho. After adjustments for inflation, Idaho's K-12 per-pupil spending was cut by 12.3 percent from 2008-2009 to 2011-2012.

Those cuts were part of a trend, identified by an analyst at FiveThirtyEight.com, a website headquartered at ESPN and created by former New York Times analyst Nate Silver, whose predictions about the outcome of national political races have become the gold standard in the world of prognosticators. It turns out that states that had been spending less money on students before the downturn - Idaho, Utah and several Southern states - engaged in bigger cuts during the recession than those states that had been funding education at higher percentages.

This disturbing trend should be the focal point of campaigns for legislative seats across the state, as well as well as the race to elect the next governor and state superintendent of public education. Challengers and incumbents should clearly explain to voters where they stand on the issue of restoring funds to our education budget. Persistent questions from reporters at news conferences, public forums and campaign stops will go a long way toward placing candidates' remarks and positions on the record when the legislature convenes next year.

Citizens, too, play a key role in promoting governmental accountability through attendance at and, in many cases, participation in a statewide dialogue on matters of education through town hall meetings, campaign events and debates.

The proof is in the pudding, of course, but a public memory of legislators' campaign pledges to boost education spending would protect against the possibility that the politics of symbolism would be more substantive than the substance of legislative actions.

The future of education leadership in Idaho is at stake. Funding levels, as well as meaningful reforms, are critical to the success of students. Candidates should engage in a robust debate on multiple education issues, including that of early childhood education, a vital component of reform.

A failure by state officials to restore education funding and, indeed, to place Idaho's students in a position where they can vie for jobs in an ultracompetitive world would inflict a grave injury on our students and our economy. Education, after all, is the most important family-values issue in a state that boasts of its commitment to family values. Inadequate funding of educational programs undercuts the future of our children and stunts economic growth and opportunities.

Education is the key to unlocking a brighter future for our children. Companies will be discouraged from relocating to Idaho, no matter how attractive state tax incentives and benefits may be, if the workforce is perceived to be undereducated, undertrained and unprepared to fill the jobs that would come to the Gem State.

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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