Editor’s note: A wide-open and critical election year is looming in Idaho in 2018. This is the 11th of a periodic series of interviews with candidates for state and federal office — with an emphasis on education topics.
Paulette Jordan’s rural roots have shaped her politics — and her view of Idaho education.
Jordan, of Plummer, represented an area of North Idaho she labels a “Trump district.” Her District 5 includes Latah County, the home of the University of Idaho, but in 2016, she was the lone Democrat elected to the district’s delegation.
Now running full-time for governor, Jordan says the state has left rural schools dependent on short-term supplemental property tax levies. Sometimes, communities rally behind their schools and pass levies. Sometimes, the proposal leaves locals divided. And the money only helps to keep the basics in place.
“Our rural school districts are suffering in every which way, and these supplemental levies are not cutting it,” Jordan said in a recent interview.
Jordan and businessman and Boise school trustee A.J. Balukoff will face off in the May 15 Democratic primary. Jordan, 38, is a member of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe; if elected in November, she would become the first Native American governor in U.S. history.
‘We have a lot of educating to do’
In 2017, Jordan co-sponsored a bill to provide student loan forgiveness for teachers who agree to work in rural Idaho. The bill went nowhere. This year, a similar loan forgiveness bill stalled in the House Education Committee.
Jordan hasn’t given up on the idea. If elected, she says she would pursue loan forgiveness as part of a larger strategy on teacher salaries. She says the five-year, $250 million career ladder plan wasn’t aggressive enough — and as a result, Idaho is “hemorrhaging” teachers, especially from its border communities.
The loan forgiveness bill is a small step to address teacher retention, with a pricetag to match. This year’s version of the bill would have cost about $1.5 million annually. But Jordan says the idea ran into resistance — even from some rural legislators, who believe their local teachers are paid too much.
“We have a lot of educating to do,” Jordan said during a City Club of Boise forum last week.
Jordan sounded a similar theme on another topic: the 2006 tax overhaul that cut $260 million in school property taxes, and replaced most of the money with a $210 million sales tax increase.
The tax shift has crippled school districts and left them scrambling to make up the difference with supplemental levies, Jordan said. She would like to revisit the issue, but recognizes the political realities. After the shift passed in a one-day special legislative session — with no support from Democratic lawmakers — the 2006 law remains popular with many Republican lawmakers.
From pre-K through college
In Jordan’s view, the state can continue to invest in a cycle that leads to ever-increasing prison costs. Or the state can invest in a new cycle that can help kids come to school ready to read at grade level — and eventually, prepare high school graduates to go on to college.
That latter course centers on universal state-funded pre-K. This too has been a non-starter at the Statehouse, as even state-funded pilot bills have gone nowhere. She says she would push the issue by bringing businesses to the forefront of the debate — although business leaders have advocated for pre-K in past years, to no avail.
Idaho’s next governor will inherit an ongoing education challenge: convincing students to continue their education beyond high school. Idaho wants 60 percent of its young adults to obtain a college degree or a professional certificate, a goal unveiled in 2010. That rate is stuck at 42 percent.
The next governor will also inherit a series of recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s higher education task force. The 2018 Legislature did little to act on the group’s recommendations, completed in 2017.
Jordan likes several pieces of the task force’s report. She agrees with the need to put more money into the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship — and the 2018 Legislature increased scholarship funding from $10 million to $13.5 million. She likes the idea of an apprenticeship program, which would allow students to alternate between semesters of class work and semesters in the workplace.
But Jordan says there are obstacles to making the task force’s mission a reality. She supports the idea of a “digital campus” — pushing college classes into rural libraries and community centers — but says that broadband is unavailable in much of rural Idaho.
And a low-wage economy thwarts the 60 percent campaign. Many students are willing to work their way through school, she says, but cannot do so on a minimum-wage job.
During the City Club forum, Jordan and Balukoff disagreed on charter schools. While Balukoff says many Idaho charter schools are copycats that have abandoned the promise of innovation, Jordan said some charters fill an important role.
Here as well, Jordan’s position reflects her rural background, and what she has seen in her former legislative district. Coeur d’Alene charter schools take in many students from the Coeur d’Alene reservation. She also says the Moscow Charter School and Palouse Prairie Charter School are innovative and diverse.
Jordan has also confronted the school choice question as the mother of two sons — a topic that came up during a televised debate Sunday night.
Jordan attended a private high school in Washington state, and now sends her sons there. Idaho’s rural schools are struggling, she said during the debate, “and I have experienced that firsthand with my sons.”
When asked if she would enroll her children in Idaho schools if elected, Jordan was noncommittal.
“That is up to my sons,” she said. “I believe in what my sons want to do.”
MORE READING FROM THIS SERIES
Russ Fulcher: ‘I’m not a slash-and-burn kind of guy’
David Leroy: ‘We are making false promises to ourselves in many quarters’
Luke Malek: ‘We need every dollar that we are putting into education’
Christy Perry: ‘We need to break the cycle of poverty’
Michael Snyder: ‘A little flame has started. “Can we fan it into a fire?’
James Vandermaas: ‘There’s so much untapped potential at this point because so many people are undereducated’
Tommy Ahlquist: ‘It’s creating that clarity’
A.J. Balukoff: ‘The thing we haven’t done is listen to the educators’
Raul Labrador: ‘If we’re going to take some of the credit then I think we need to take some of the blame at the governor’s office’
Brad Little: ‘We have an obligation to explain how important education is today’