The seventh and final scheduled meeting of Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education met Thursday evening at the state Capitol in the Lincoln Auditorium, with ideas presented ranging from taxpayer-funded preschool to fighting early childhood diseases.
Before public testimony began at a hearing that lasted nearly three hours, Richard Westerberg, chairman of the 31-member task force, told the audience of around 100: “It is not particularly helpful to express your approval or disapproval of past Legislatures. We’re seeking ideas for the future.”
Westerberg proposed several topical questions to the audience that the task force had previously formulated. “How best can finite resources be used in schools, was one question, along with how can Idaho improve the percentage of students who leave high school and go on to a post-secondary degree or certification program.”
One of those offering testimony was a former economic aide to Otter, Michael Ferguson, now an economist with the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy. “If we were to fund education today the way we did back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we’d be far better off,” he said “Tax cuts alone don’t bring us the prosperity that we desire. We need an educated workforce as well.”
Colleen Fellows, a board member of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, called for more funding for early childhood education programs. “Too many Idaho children enter kindergarten unprepared,” she noted, and said that if the state funded preschool more effectively, it would help “bridge socio-economic gaps.”
Steve Smylie, a former legislator, told the gathering that he is a “a lifelong educator, and I served four terms in the Legislature, so I understand both sides.” Smylie is now a professor of education at Boise State University. Invoking the legacy of his father, former Idaho Gov. Robert Smylie, Steve Smylie lamented the lack of state spending on education. “We’re back to 1965,” he said of current state funding levels.
Nearly one-half of the presenters at the evening’s event called for the repeal of Common Core curriculum standards. “They passed it, but they didn’t provide funding for it,” noted Sue Darden, a sixth grade teacher from the Meridian School District.
In January of this year, Otter announced that he was not looking for education reforms in the upcoming legislative session. “Let me say it again,” he reiterated in his State of the State address on Jan. 7. “I am neither calling for nor expecting major school improvement measures this year. But I believe there are areas in which we can make progress, and I encourage you and all citizens to engage in that public discussion.” One of Otter’s actions was to appoint the task force to develop recommendations for the 2014 legislative session.
Westerberg stated that the task force will convene again sometime in May to consolidate the information gathered at the seven meetings.
Marilyn Whitney, spokesperson for the Idaho State Board of Education, told IdahoReporter.com that the task force is expected to meet again later in the summer. “The governor’s office will then consider the ideas gathered by the task force, and determine which ideas may need legislative action.”
The executive director of Sage International Charter School in Boise, Don Keller, told IdahoReporter.com that “I hope we can produce some actual items that the governor can act upon.” He added, “What I liked about this the best is that we’ve begun a very thoughtful discussion about education in our state.”