Editor’s note: A wide-open and critical election year is looming in Idaho in 2018. This is the ninth of a periodic series of interviews with candidates for state and federal office — with an emphasis on education topics.
In January, A J Balukoff launched his second run for governor with a grim assessment of the state of the state.
“When I ran four years ago, Idaho was at the bottom of the barrel in education investments, education results and household income, while being a national leader in minimum-wage jobs. Here we are four years later and nothing has changed.”
The Democratic candidate and 21-year Boise school trustee says education is his top issue. And after years of struggling to convince high school graduates to continue their education, he says Idaho needs to make systemic changes.
“We haven’t done a whole lot differently,” Balukoff said in a recent interview. “And the thing we haven’t done is listen to the educators.”
Balukoff, 71, and former state Rep. Paulette Jordan will meet in the May 15 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Boise developer and physician Tommy Ahlquist, U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador and Lt. Gov. Brad Little will square off in the Republican primary.
Of task forces and ‘salesmen’
When Balukoff ran against Gov. Butch Otter in 2014 — an election Otter ultimately won comfortably, by nearly 15 percentage points — the incumbent was running on the work of his K-12 task force. Otter said then, and often says now, that the task force’s 2013 recommendations have given Idaho an unprecedented five-year plan for education.
The task force’s big ticket recommendation, the $250 million career ladder plan, has been helpful, Balukoff said. But he says the benefits are mixed. Rural districts still struggle to recruit and retain teachers. The career ladder has done little to help keep veteran teachers on the job. The teacher evaluations process — the accountability piece of the career ladder law — has created burdensome paperwork for administrators who already know how to evaluate their staff.
Balukoff gives tepid reviews to Otter’s latest task force — a 36-member group that spent 2017 studying the higher education system. He says Otter recruited good people who worked hard, but the mix was wrong. The committee was top-heavy with college presidents — administrators and “salesmen,” said Balukoff — and it needed more perspective from the college classroom.
Balukoff supports the underlining goal of both task forces: encouraging 60 percent of the state’s 25- to 34-year-olds to earn a college degree or certificate. He also believes the state faces fundamental college affordability issues, which must be addressed by driving down tuition or beefing up college scholarships.
An emphasis on early education
But Balukoff believes the most effective way to reach the 60 percent goal is through pre-K — a connection made, however briefly, by Otter’s higher ed task force. For Balukoff, the connection is clear. If kindergartners start school behind their classmates, they’re more likely to drop out, and they’re far less likely to continue their education after high school.
Balukoff has seen the impacts of pre-K firsthand, through a promising pilot program in Boise’s higher-poverty Vista neighborhood. He also touts other local pre-K offerings, such as an early childhood program in Idaho City, supported through a local supplemental property tax levy.
But pre-K proposals have gained little traction in the Statehouse, leaving Idaho one of only six states that does not fund early education. In the face of this impasse, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra has embraced the idea of an online early learning app, that a for-profit vendor has offered to make available for free to parents of 4-year-olds. “That’s not a real solution and we shouldn’t be getting that from our state superintendent,” Balukoff said.
Balukoff would instead push for a classroom-based approach — a voluntary system that would provide pre-K access to Idaho families, regardless of income. And he downplays the challenge of advancing pre-K as a Democratic governor in an overwhelmingly Republican Statehouse.
“We can have that conversation with legislators,” he said. “I believe I can work with them and I believe they can work with me.”
On K-12 funding
During the Great Recession, the Boise School District was able to run a supplemental levy to keep class sizes stable. Not all districts were as fortunate, Balukoff said. They were forced to cut class offerings or shift to a four-day schedule.
And while supplemental levies are something of the norm — on the books in 93 of Idaho’s 115 school districts — Balukoff considers them an unstable funding source. Districts must seek levy renewals every one or two years, and some districts still cannot pass a levy at all.
Balukoff lays much of the blame on a 2006 tax overhaul that cut $260 million in local school tax levies and used sales taxes to make up most of the difference. As a candidate in 2014, Balukoff pledged to revisit this tax shift. He also said the state should tax online sales to help fund education.
Charters and choices
As a Boise trustee, Balukoff also has seen the growth of charter schools firsthand. The state’s first charter school — Garden City’s Anser Charter School — opened in 1999 under the Boise School District’s jurisdiction. Today, Idaho’s 52 charter schools have a combined enrollment of more than 20,000.
Balukoff concedes charter schools are here to stay. But he is a skeptic. He says the charters don’t outperform traditional public schools with similar demographics — while taking engaged parents out of the traditional public school system. Balukoff favors school choice. But he points out that the Boise district, which has an open enrollment policy, offers everything from dual-language immersion to schools with a math and science emphasis.
“I don’t think we need charter schools to provide that choice,” he said.
MORE READING FROM THIS SERIES
Tommy Ahlquist: ‘It’s creating that clarity’
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’
First Congressional District candidates:
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?’