Better education creates better opportunities

I am an Idahoan and the CEO of an Idaho-based company. I serve as Vice Chair of Idaho Business for Education (IBE), a non-profit, non-partisan organization of business leaders committed to improving education in Idaho.

I care a great deal about education, but I am not an education expert, I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I certainly respect the education professionals struggling with this issue.


Bob Lokken

But as a business owner, I am frustrated. For my company to succeed, I need top quality employees. All too often, we are hiring
people from outside Idaho – “importing them” if you will – to fill critical, highly paid positions. Why? Because Idaho’s education system is not producing graduates with the skills we need. And that’s a problem.

We have the raw talent right here. What we need is more educational opportunities to ensure that our kids have good jobs and our businesses have quality employees.

Idaho’s State Board of Education has a goal of seeing 60 percent of our students complete some form of post-secondary education – a college degree or a certificate of technical training – by 2020. The fastest-growing high wage jobs require at least some post-secondary education. But if the status quo continues, there is no way that goal will be met.

The IBE recently prepared a “Field Guide” to public education in Idaho. This booklet includes a wide range of studies and rankings from government and respected non-profit organizations. Unfortunately, it paints a sobering picture. Idaho continues to rank near the bottom nationally in many critical measures:

  • Idaho ranks 47th among all states in the proportion of students who graduate from high school on time and go directly to college.
  • Of those students, Idaho ranks 46th in the proportion of students who return for their second year of college.
  • Of the students who do return for a second year, Idaho ranks 41st in students who graduate within 150 percent of program time.

It is difficult to look at these numbers and not conclude that we face an education crisis in Idaho. Consider this: Forty years ago, only 27 percent of the nation’s 93 million workers were educated beyond high school. By 2007, the work force had exploded to 154 million workers, but 59 percent had education beyond high school. While the total number of jobs grew by 63 million, the number held by people with no post-secondary education fell by two million. All deep research indicates this trend will continue.

The message is clear. All net job growth over the past four decades was generated by positions requiring at least some post-secondary education. Today education beyond high school is essentially a pre-requisite for success in the work place.

Clearly we have a problem. Today precision manufacturers can’t find workers with appropriate technical skills. High-tech companies have to recruit out of state – or leave the state. Hospitals and rural clinics lack trained medical staff. The evidence is all around us.

Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter has established a Task Force comprised of education professionals and stakeholders to review the problem and make recommendations. I am honored to participate. Policy makers, elected officials, education leaders, and other stakeholders are working together to make recommendations. My only hope is that we act quickly.

The business community may not have all the answers, but as employers, we certainly have a sense of urgency. The jobs are available now. We want to hire well-educated, well-prepared Idaho graduates who can help us succeed by succeeding themselves. The longer we wait, the more opportunities are lost.

  • Kevin S. Wilson

    Mr. Lokken is correct about one thing: The State Board of Education’s goal of seeing 60 percent of our students complete some form of post-secondary education – a college degree or a certificate of technical training – by 2020 will remain unmet and unattainable if the status quo continues.

    If the status quo continues, nearly half of K-12 students will continue to come from low-income families, with 7 in 10 students attending schools that receive Title 1 funds (Idaho Field Guide, p 3). This statistic is unlikely to be improved by any recommendation coming from the Governor’s Task Force on Education.

    If the status quo continues, the Idaho Legislature will continue to provide tax breaks to the wealthiest individuals and to the largest, most profitable corporations, as it did last year with a $36 million income-tax cut for corporations and for the 17% of Idaho taxpayers in the highest tax brackets–at the expense of funding for education and vital social services.

    If the status quo continues, the Idaho Legislature will repeal the personal property tax on business, thereby shifting more of the burden for paying for education onto the shoulders of middle-class property owners while providing a $140 million tax break to such corporations as Idaho Power and Micron.

    If the status quo continues, the Idaho Legislature (encouraged by many Idaho businesses and supporters of so-called education “reform”) will continue to shirk its constitutionally mandated duty to “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools,” starving education through budget cuts and forcing communities to tax themselves through supplemental levies, something that nearly 80% of school districts have done in the past two years.

    If the status quo continues, Idaho will continue to rank dead-last in per-student funding compared to 49 other states, and 18th in the nation for drawing upon federal funds for education (Idaho Field Guide, p 6). While spending is no guarantee of success in education, there is no denying that one quite often gets what one pays for, and that going cheap is often a recipe for disaster.

    If the status quo continues, Idaho will continue to be the only state in the nation to elect a Superintendent of Public Education who has no degree or experience in the field of education, and he will continue to refer to Idaho’s teachers as “union thugs” controlled by “union bosses.” While doing so he will enjoy the tacit approval of the Governor and members of the majority party in the Legislature, who will continue to nod approvingly while refusing to criticize this divisive, unwarranted demonization of the friends, neighbors, family, and fellow citizens who are Idaho’s teachers.

    If the status quo continues, the Idaho Legislature (again with the support of many Idaho business leaders and now with the added support of the Idaho School Boards Association) will ignore the will of the people as expressed last November and introduce the Luna Laws version 2.0, a warmed-over rehash of legislation intended to strip the Idaho Education Association of what little power and influence it possesses, render teachers compliant and quiet for fear of being fired either for political expediency or because they are too experienced and therefore too expensive, and to reward campaign contributors drawn from the ranks of the for-profit education industry. All of this will be done in the name of “education reform,” though no research exists to indicate that learning outcomes and student performance are enhanced by passing union-busting legislation, stripping teachers of continuing contracts and due process, imposing merit-pay schemes, or requiring students to take online courses.

    If the status quo continues, charter schools will continue to be touted as miracle-making mechanisms for improving academic performance AND for providing parents with “school choice,” in spite of the fact that charter schools perform marginally better in a few instances than traditional public schools and substantially worse in many other instances, particularly with such virtual charter schools as the Idaho Virtual Academy. Moreover, if the status quo continues, “school choice” will continue to be dog-whistle language for a “voucher system” that enables taxpayer money to be funneled not only to public charter schools but also to private and parochial schools, creating both racial and economic segregation while removing the barrier between church and state.

    If the status quo continues, education issues in Idaho will continue to attract ever-growing amounts of money from out of state, money aimed at influencing everything from ballot initiatives such as those that repealed the Luna Laws to local school-board elections. Millions of dollars will be brought to bear by special-interest groups and such political-action committees as Education Voters of Idaho, which last year spent over $600,000 to support the Luna Laws, money drawn from less than two dozen corporations and individuals, including the billionaire mayor of New York city and assorted hedge-fund managers and venture capitalists, including the manager of a hedge fund specializing in financing charter schools.

    If the status quo continues, only 35% of 3- to 4-year-old children in Idaho will be enrolled in some form of school, though the national average is 48%, in part because legislators in the majority party in Idaho refuse to invest in early-childhood education because they believe that it is a duty best discharged at home, by parents. Once again, ideology and religion trump research and facts, another hallmark of the status quo in Idaho.

    Another hallmark of the status quo—if this isn’t obvious by now—is that improving academic performance and learning outcomes has as much to do with paying working parents a living wage and creating a society that grants them and their children some respite from hunger, worry, and want. I’m not looking to the Governor’s Task Force for advice on how to create those necessary conditions for healthy, vibrant schools. I’m looking to the Governor, the Legislature, and business leaders such as Mr. Lokken to make it happen—and soon.

    Finally, though this list is far from exhaustive or complete, if the status quo continues then Idaho’s parents and children will continue to hear from a variety of sources–from the Governor’s Office to the board room to the local news–that the purpose of education is to train the next generation of worker bees to possess just the right number of skills sufficient for hunkering down for 12 hours over a microchip assembly line or riding a cubicle in a customer-service call center all day and into the night. Sadly, that message has come through loud and clear these past few years. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for those who demand that Something Be Done Right Away to acknowledge that education has a much nobler purpose: to provide individuals with the opportunity to learn widely and deeply, to think critically and creatively, to become part of the Grand Conversation and in so doing develop into informed, conscientious, active citizens in a participatory democracy.

  • Scott Nicholson

    When Bob wants to obtain talent, I wonder what he uses to incentivize his employees. Last year it seemed he thought reducing an existing employee’s pay and holding it out as a potential bonus based on weak (at best) criteria was a good idea.

    He’s got a good business track record from what I can tell. His integrity on backing meaningful, well thought out, and fair change is questionable, however.

    So, this is a call to action. The real question is how you attract the talent we need in education with wages at a level that newly hired teachers can qualify for food stamps. I’m just betting Bob doesn’t use that strategy in his own business. At least I hope not.

  • Victoria M. Young

    Thank you, Bob. I understand your frustration; I work in a small business setting as a professional and I see first-hand the results (the outcome) of an inadequate education system. It is the fact no one has wanted to face. It is the drum that I have been beating for two decades…but now it is different.

    I really appreciative you saying “I care a great deal about education, but I am not an education expert…”

    Unfortunately, I have become an education expert (defined here as a person who has accumulated a body of knowledge on a given topic). The reason I say it is unfortunate is because there has been no productive outlet for the practical solutions I have uncovered. Frustrating!

    So, as an expert who agrees that their is an urgency to improve, what you need to understand first is the failures of “reform.” “…if the status quo continues” …. define the status quo for starters

    Then, the only way we don’t keep doing the same things and expecting different results is to review our failures.

    In my business, I must review the history of a problem, run diagnostic tests in necessary, make a diagnosis, go over treatment options, and decide the treatment based on the circumstances. We can make things better IF we approach it differently than we have in the past. Task force – when only the same “stakeholder groups” are put together, it is a status quo reform tool.

    • Layne Ward

      Ms. Young, I read your comment in your link and your comment here. You say you have uncovered practical solutions – what are they? You say you have accumulated knowledge – how? You have opinions on who shouldn’t be involved in ed policy – who should? You say you are frustrated – so am I, because you and Mr. Lokken not only fail to offer solutions, but also fail to provide a discernible direction you wish the process to go.

  • Kevin S. Wilson

    Mr. Ward:
    Though Ms. Young can certainly speak for herself, I’ll chime in here just in case your questions do not come to her attention. I believe that you’ll find answers to your questions in her book “The Crucial Voice of the People, Past and Present: Education’s Missing Ingredient,” including answers to your questions about her credentials and qualifications.

  • Victoria M. Young

    I am just now coming back to this article because of the Idaho Reports interview last night. Seems I missed out on an opportunity to converse with Layne Ward. Who knows if she will come back! The programs that allow follow-up are handy. Now I’m not sure if I am wasting time trying to answer the questions but as Kevin indicated, I have laid them out before.

    Layne’s last question is actually where the country should begin first – the direction? For me, it is school improvement. Solutions – the principles of effective schools as first outlined by researcher Ron Edmunds and used in this article

    Who should be involved in ed policy? We all should. But first we have to have the facts and my experience as “just a parent” has been that education officials are not freely forthcoming. One year I asked for the teacher turn-over rate for a year before I gave up. Currently, I had to go down to my district office to fill out a request for information to get the SAT summary for my district – taxpayers NOW PAY for the tests! Anyway,….working backwards on the questions…

    Knowledge gained – it started with 11 years, 1 to 2 days a week every week, in classrooms helping both kids and teachers. Did 18 years in my districts on various committees and wrote a safe school grant and science education grant (both pro-bono) – researched done on my time and for the science one, it was quite in depth.

    Spend a few years researching for the first edition of my book (in addition to that already done) and continued researching during the three years between editions.

    Now, to the practical. We say we have identified under-performing schools. Why don’t we start “reforming” them first? In this country, we have every sort of assessment tool known to man – most free – for defining what an individual school is having trouble with. Define the problem. Then, we have tools to assess community assets. Find already existing resources. Then, the two must meet!

    School improvement processes have been clearly defined. The system must ensure that it is – and they haven’t to date.

    And that is where I propose we follow what Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Reagan have all already proposed. The only reason I don’t just spit it out is – you can’t do it “right” if you don’t fully understand. It would be better to have a real conversation. My e-mail address is very public on my website and I am more than willing to arrange to visit. :o)