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With vision, Otter's ed task force could soar

Marty Trillhaase
January 17, 2013
Lewiston Tribune

As it was taking flight last week, Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter's education task force had the feel of organized chaos.

After voters rejected schools Superintendent Tom Luna's top-down state-mandated education overhaul package, the governor opted to seek a bottom-up consensus on what to do next.

He called together this eclectic group of educators, business lobbyists, legislators and state officials. Its 31 participants include State Board of Education members and Luna, as well as Mike Lanza, the Boise parent who organized the successful voter repeal of the Luna laws.

That puts Otter on a better path than simply having politicians imposing their narrow reform agenda on public school children. But Friday, clarity was in short supply.

Even on such an uncomplicated question as whether to restore about $31 million earmarked for the Luna package to the public education funding base, confusion prevailed.

"I guess I'm just a little puzzled," State Board member Richard Westerberg said. "When everybody around the table agrees that these four or five budget items for 2013 ought to be funded, why can't we just say so?"

Meanwhile, there's talk of the task force recommending what to do with about $34 million Otter has funneled into a reform program for the next school year.

Likewise, you may hear consideration of the issues Luna raised. Should it address changing teacher employment law? Merit pay? The role of technology in the classroom?

Those are small-bore questions. Stay there and this task force squanders a unique opportunity to set its own agenda:

Ask Idahoans what they want from their schools. And do they believe the schools are delivering or not?

Take a hard look at the role of standardized testing in Idaho schools. Are these tests truly measuring student achievement? Or are they dictating what is taught in the classroom?

And challenge the biggest issue of all - the systematic disinvestment of Idaho public education. The evidence is in: Round after round of tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations have drained money from Idaho's classrooms. Schools have yet to recover from the Great Recession cuts. The share of Idaho's personal income devoted to public education is down almost a quarter from its traditional level. The gap between districts wealthy enough to cover the loss of state funds through property taxes and those that can't is growing.

Yet, when was the last time you heard the elected leader of Idaho's public education system actually advocating more resources for the schools?

When was the last time the State Board of Education rose up and told Idaho voters that while spending is no guarantee of good schools, lack of money is a certain recipe for mediocrity?

Certainly not since Idaho elected an all-Republican government nearly two decades ago.

Whether intentional or not, Otter has given education advocates a new stage from which they can speak truth to power. They can delve into Idaho's problems and its possibilities. They can tell Idahoans plainly what a quality education costs.

And they can finally engage in a conversation the state's political elites have avoided for a generation.

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