Education

Otter’s education focus runs from kindergartens to colleges

Gov. Butch Otter spent more than half of his State of the State speech Monday talking about education goals from kindergarten through college.

“I think it was probably a State of the State focused on education more than any one I have heard,” said Rod Gramer, president of Idaho Business for Education, a group of active and retired corporate leaders advocating for education reform.

“We have priorities for Idaho’s future that require world-class K-12 schools and an advanced, responsive post secondary education system,” Otter said.

BUILDING BETTER READERS

Otter called for nearly $11 million to boost reading skills among kids through third grade, including making available full-day kindergarten to districts that think it would help the most struggling students.

“I am interested in exploring that,” said David Peterson, Nampa School District superintendent. “The earlier we can intervene with kids who are struggling, the better.”

Idaho has wrestled with improving the reading of young children for nearly two decades, but among kindergartners, 45 percent of student show up each fall without the necessary skills to learning reading.

“Through the third grade, they learn to read,” Otter said. “But from the fourth grade on, they read to learn.”

Otter’s proposal was guided by Idaho Business for Education and other advocacy groups who believe reading is a fundamental skill in school. They are proposing to overhaul the state’s reading program with a new assessment and extra hours of instruction for lagging readers in first and second grades.

“The local districts have to focus on this like a laser,” Gramer said. “That is going to be key.”

Gramer is still working on a community-based early childhood education centers with a mixture of support from the communities and the Legislature. But he says that needs more work to make it palatable to legislatures. He’s not backing off the proposal, but say Otter’s idea for literacy is a powerful one.

GETTING A HANDLE ON TUITION

Otter’s proposals are aimed at increasing affordability at Idaho’s four-year universities and colleges. His key plan is to lock in tuition for Idaho undergraduate students attending a four-year school.

The tuition students pay their first year will be the same throughout their four years, if they keep grades up. Details are yet to be worked out. But the plan provides stability for financial planning and some savings, Otter said.

A tuition lock requires lawmakers to appropriate enough money each year to cover the gap between what tuition raises and what the school needs to operate, which Bob Kustra, Boise State University president, thinks will keep the schools from trying for a large increase with each new freshman class.

It is the first time the schools and the state have worked out a significant deal that could keep tuition from spiraling upward and pricing more students out of the market.

“That’s just a guarantee that very few students across the United States can expect,” said Kustra.

That guarantee can make a difference for many of the Boise School District students in AVID, a program that helps prepare students — some of whom may struggle to pay tuition — for college, said Don Coberly, district superintendent.

Boise schools can enroll students in challenging classes and get them ready for college, he said. but some of those students still can’t pay. Of tuition lock, Coberly said, “I like the assurance and consistency for students.”

Combined with Otter’s proposal to increase the Opportunity Scholarship by $5 million to reach more students in need, and with scholarship from colleges, “there simply aren’t many reasons left why a student in Idaho cannot afford a college or university education,” Kustra said.

Democrats disappointed

Idaho’s Democratic legislative leaders criticized the governor’s education plan, arguing that the proposed increase is not enough to keep up with Idaho’s growth.

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said the state’s education policy would earn politicians and the governor an “incomplete” in a classroom.

“Twice in his speech today, the governor proposed getting us to 2009 levels or accomplishing 2009 goals, as if that were a laudable achievement.” Stennett said. “We cannot compete in today’s economy if we are still trying to catch up to 2009.”

House Minority Assistant Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, also vowed to introduce legislation to expand Medicaid and to raise minimum wage. Previous attempts to pass similar measures have failed in the Republican-dominated Statehouse.

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