Governor candidate sees schools as a tool to halt exodus of Idaho talent

Lt. Gov. Brad Little speaks with Senate leadership shortly before the end of the 2017 legislative session.
Lt. Gov. Brad Little speaks with Senate leadership shortly before the end of the 2017 legislative session. Idaho Statesman file

To craft his education plan to “create classrooms for the 21st century,” gubernatorial GOP candidate and Lt. Gov. Brad Little said he picked a single focus.

“As governor of Idaho, I will look at every decision through one lens: How do we keep our children and grandchildren in Idaho, and how do we get those who have left our state to return?” Little said in a news release. “Education is the most important ingredient for creating these future opportunities.”

Little is part of a competitive field for the May Republican primary, including Congressman Raul Labrador and Boise businessman Tommy Ahlquist. Neither of those candidates has yet released a detailed education platform.

Here’s Little’s recipe for improving education in Idaho:

Keep it local

One size doesn’t necessarily fit all across Idaho schools. Little said he understands the differences between urban and rural school districts, and that the state needs to focus on and find local solutions to local problems.

“Each local community knows what is best for its children,” he said. “Just as top-down federal mandates don’t work, top-down state mandates don’t work either. Solutions should be locally driven.”

To accomplish this, Little would:

▪  Encourage resource sharing between neighboring school districts in rural areas to help offset costs, then reward those areas that create successful partnerships.

▪  Give more voice in the Legislature to, and commit to, policies driven by those closest to Idaho’s students — school board members, PTAs and teachers, which “are the frontlines of our education system.”

Gov. Butch Otter convened an education task force in late 2012 to help accomplish this. That group produced a five-year template for school funding; lawmakers supported it and are heading into its fourth year.

Little said having a task force “is a good start” but he would like more continuous input.

“He will actively seek input by traveling the state visiting with local school administrators, teachers and PTA members,” campaign manager Zach Hauge said. “A good plan needs to be constantly evaluated, and he is committed to ensuring our children have the same opportunities as those living in other states.”

▪  Ensure robust broadband capabilities throughout the state, so students can access online classes on topics not being taught at their schools. Idaho’s most recent attempt at this was the $60 million Idaho Education Network contract awarded in 2009 to several private providers; a court later said the state mishandled it and declared it illegal and void.

Little would not specify how he would ensure the entire state has strong broadband capabilities.

“How that happens needs to be done through a thorough vetting process,” Hauge said. “Lt. Gov. Little wants to ensure that broadband is delivered through the most cost-effective means and done efficiently.”

Best teachers, best students

Retaining and producing the best teachers is a priority.

“When we have our best teachers in the classrooms, we get the best students,” Little said. “This is a challenge specifically for Idaho’s rural communities, where districts find themselves lacking the necessary teachers for a variety of topics.”

To accomplish this, Little would:

▪  Increase education dollars for raising teacher pay, including boosting teacher starting pay to $40,000, with a focus on tying these pay increases to improving student outcomes.

The current school funding plan boosts teacher salaries, and takes job performance into account when setting pay. Since the plan began in 2015, teacher salaries have gone up 8.8 percent, according to an Idaho Education News analysis.

The minimum salary for a first-year teacher, the bottom rung on the career ladder, is $34,600. On Monday, Idaho’s budget panel approved increasing the rate next school year to $35,800.

Once the five-year plan is completed, Little wants to revisit it before deciding what to do next.

“Rather than simply extending the plan or putting fixed funding into place, Lt. Gov. Little believes that we need collective input from all stakeholders, so we can assess what’s working and what’s not,” Hauge said.

▪  Implement signing bonuses for teachers who choose to work in Idaho’s rural communities, and create incentives for those who graduate and remain in Idaho to teach.

▪  Provide school districts more flexibility to hire people with industry experience and/or strong content knowledge through alternative accreditation methods.

▪  Create alternative learning and classroom options that allow students to advance based on competency, and to choose the path that fits them best.

▪  Ensure students are literate by the third grade by having teachers identify students who have trouble reading, so those students can receive specialized attention.

“If a student leaves the third grade without being able to read, they are at a disadvantage in reading to learn and can often never catch up,” Little said.

Idaho currently uses the Idaho Reading Indicator as an early reading screener for public school students in K-3rd grades. Little said he supports that program, but “we need to continuously be looking for ways to improve the process.”

K-12 and beyond

Little said he wants to “blur the lines between K through 12, career-technical and higher education,” by increasing education opportunities beyond high school.

To accomplish this, Little would:

▪  Allow colleges and universities to keep sales tax generated on their campuses. That money would then be used to control tuition costs for students.

▪  Provide school districts more incentives to produce graduates who earn career-technical education certificates and job-ready skills.

▪  Increase dual-credit opportunities across Idaho — aligned to high demand, high paying careers — in order to lower the cost of college degrees. Dual-credit courses allow high school students to get a jump on their college coursework. But the State Board of Education last year discussed a need to tweak the program after hearing a number of courses only applied toward students’ lower-value elective classes.

Lessons learned

Little has spent the past 17 years in the Idaho Capitol — seven years as a senator and nine years as lieutenant governor. During his tenure, he said, he learned from the failure of a previous education reform effort.

Little is referring to Propositions 1, 2 and 3, also known as “Students Come First” or the “Luna laws.” The education reform spearheaded by former schools Superintendent Tom Luna and supported by Gov. Butch Otter addressed topics like the collective bargaining process for teachers, teacher merit pay and classroom technology.

The Legislature passed the reforms in 2011, but voters swiftly swept them off the books in 2012. Many of the same reforms were later passed again. But the incident’s broader legacy was Otter’s task force.

Little’s takeaway from that experience: “It is critical to have widespread backing from those who work and support education to assist in leading the state in the right direction.”

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell