When it comes to education, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter wants voters to look back no further than December 2012.
That’s when he appointed his task force on education that has developed a bipartisan list of 20 recommendations for improving education, including increasing spending more than $350 million over the next five to six years.
The Idaho Legislature passed laws earlier this year that addressed parts of 13 of the recommendations and increased education spending by 5.1 percent, on track to meet the goal.
“I have every reason to believe we can reach that goal, maybe even more,” Otter said in a recent address to the East Boise Rotary.
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But before 2012, Otter was signed on wholeheartedly to a vision by state schools chief Tom Luna to vastly reform Idaho education with virtually no discussion among teachers, parents or school board trustees.
The Students Come First laws sought to limit teachers' bargaining rights, put a laptop in the hands of every high school student and require students to take online classes.
When voters threw out the laws in a referendum in 2012, Otter suddenly saw the light on the need for a task force of all stakeholders to discuss where education should go.
Otter says the new standard for education excellence and workforce readiness should be characterized as "K-through-Career."
Democratic gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff, a Boise businessman and chairman of the Boise School Board, hopes voters take a longer view. He has made improving education for every Idaho student the centerpiece of his campaign.
Balukoff wants voters to know how deep Otter allowed cuts in the education budget to grow during his two terms dominated by the largest recession since the Great Depression.
ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight blog reported Idaho cut education spending by a larger percentage than any other state during the recession, 12.3 percent less per student in the 2011-12 school year than in 2008-09. Balukoff said these cuts have made it hard for districts to hold on to good teachers.
Balukoff reminds them Otter supported the Students Come First laws, which voters rejected in that 2012 referendum after a grassroots campaign in which Balukoff played a major role. But Balukoff says Idaho education efforts went off the rails even earlier — in 2006, when then-Gov. Jim Risch shifted part of the state's education funding from local property taxes to a one-cent sales tax.
Risch's move also got rid of the equalization formula for education fund distribution. Since the recession hit in 2008 and the Legislature started cutting funding, voters in 94 schools districts were forced to pass supplemental levies just to keep up, Balukoff said.
Students in those districts who couldn’t pass levies were forced to go without. About 40 districts went to longer days with four-day school weeks.
“Kids are pretty tired by 2 o'clock in the afternoon,” Balukoff said. “I wonder how effective that last couple of hours of the school day is. I don’t think it’s very effective.”
Balukoff is not calling for a reversal of the Risch tax shift and changes. Instead, he wants to bring together Idahoans from all sides of the issue to develop a solution that meets the needs of all Idaho students and allow more local control.
“I want to get people around the table and fix this,” he said.
Otter doesn’t walk away from his support of Students Come First.
“We had a good product,” Otter said. “We had a bad process.”
And he says critics put too much emphasis on how low Idaho ranks for education spending, among the bottom two states for spending per student, and not how it ranks for test scores and other factors.
“It’s not how much money you spend, it’s how you spend it,” Otter said.