Funding, accountability highlight public forum

Republican Rep. Reed DeMordaunt emphasized accountability, parent choice and innovation in education. Former lawmaker and Democrat Brian Cronin pointed out that Idaho schools need more money and a better investment in early childhood education. Boise State University professor Jennifer Snow said she is concerned that teachers are dealing with more students and less prep time and are feeling undervalued.

Those were some of the opinions from three panelists at Boise State Public Radio’s Education Forum held Tuesday evening at  Salt Tears Coffeehouse & Noshery. The standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people were riveted by the conversation conduct by Idaho education experts and they enjoyed the atmosphere, the free hors d’oeuvres, and the selection of beer, wine and coffee.

The crowd included mostly teachers, some current and former lawmakers and Boise School District superintendent Don Coberly and IEA president Penni Cyr.

The panelists took questions from moderators about education reform before audience members were allowed the microphone. Most audience members shared their opinions rather than asking questions.

One retired teacher complained that lawmakers talk about attracting new business to Idaho yet how would new business be attracted to a state that puts such little funding into education, she asked.

“You’re not going to like my answer,” said Rep. DeMordaunt, a successful business owner who earned a masters degree in international business. “I meet with the folks that we are trying to attract and the feedback I get is that our corporate tax rate is too high. These factors are important, too.”

Even though the audience was full of educators, the people raised their hands to rank Idaho education and most voted B or C with almost no As or Fs.

“The statistics are sobering and that’s what’s driving this discussion,” DeMordaunt said. “I’ve lived in places like India and China and those kids are working really hard. The new saying is: Do your homework, because there is a kid in China that wants your job.”

Cronin countered with “I’m not from the sky-is-falling school of thought” on Idaho’s education numbers.  “You get what you put into it and our investment is very, very low.”

DeMordaunt said: “Per student spending has almost doubled in Idaho. Idahoans are saying they want to make sure they are getting their money’s worth. I tell teachers we need to put systems in place that help you articulate your value.”

Cronin said: “Money matters if you spend it wisely and efficiently — forty districts have gone to a four-day school week. Is that reform? I don’t think so.”

Mike Lanza, who leads a parent organization that helped repeal education reform laws, asked the panelist to share their big-picture vision.

DeMordaunt said: “We need to focus on outcomes and then allow innovation to run wild. We get too prescriptive in nature. With local control comes accountability of outcomes.”

Cronin said: “What we need first is to agree on what the problem is. I’m optimistic about our future and the governor’s task force.”

Snow said: “The program-of-the-month club doesn’t work and never has. We need to define the purpose of public education and then how do we want to get there.”

The panelists were asked about school choice. All agreed to some extent that choices for parents can be good but it needs close monitoring.

“I don’t know that school choice is evil but we need to think more closely at the choices out there,” Snow said.

Rep. DeMordaunt said that with choice comes accountability and he approves tax dollars following where the child is being educated. He also supports empowering administrators and principals. “What do they have control over? Almost nothing,” he said.

Cronin admitted that he has considered charter schools for his children but that the real issue is about funding. “We’re cyphering off public schools. Providing vouchers for private schools would be an enormous mistake.”

In closing remarks, Cronin said that early childhood education could be the best expense Idaho could make, “we save money by investing in the early end.”

DeMordaunt said: “We all care passionately about our kids and their education. It isn’t going to be easy, but I’m confident that the commitment is in our state to get us there.”

 inside crowd