How I spent my spring non-vacation

All politics may be local. Few issues are exclusively local.

Perhaps more than anything else, that’s what I take away from this week’s Education Writers Association national seminar.

Education reporters from across the United States, and beyond, gathered in Boston for an intensive series of seminars on the big issues facing K-12 and higher education. As I write this post Wednesday morning — somewhere in the skies between Boston and Boise — I’m reminded that Idaho’s K-12 issues are anything but unique.

On Monday, an overflow crowd of writers crammed in for a panel discussion on charter schools. Charters are a sensitive topic in Massachusetts; a referendum to lift the stat’s charter school cap is likely to appear on the November ballot. Yet Monday’s talking points would have blended in nicely in any charter school hearing at the Idaho Statehouse.

Shannah Varon of the Boston Collegiate Charter School said voters can give more parents the chance to enroll their kids in charters, while encouraging school innovation. Juan Cofield of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP argued that charter expansion will continue to siphon off students, at the expense of the traditional schools. “(It’s) the worst thing in the world that can happen.”

The conference closed Tuesday with a keynote from Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. A Republican elected in 2014, Baker touted a state educational system that frequently appears at the top of national rankings. But he listed a series of challenges that aren’t unfamiliar to anyone who follows Idaho education: stagnating test scores, a shortage of career-ready graduates and a troubling college remediation rate. “We obviously need to upgrade what we’re doing at the K-12 level,” he said.

This week’s seminar theme, “The Quest for Quality and Equity,” means different things in different states.

In Massachusetts, for instance, the charter schools debate centers on inner-city educational access. Charter supporters, such as Baker, see expanded school choice as a means to open new opportunities to at-risk students.

But it should go without saying that so many of Idaho’s educational issues come back to equity. Whether it’s the growth of four-day school districts or the state’s growing dependence on supplemental school levies — or even the refugee education issues we explored this week — our state’s educational issues can be, and should be, viewed through the prism of equity.

I come away from this week’s seminars with copious notes and a laptop full of story ideas.

I had the chance to get a more global view of the teacher evaluation process (And, spoiler alert, I’m writing about that workshop for EWA, and I’ll post my piece here in the next few days.)

I come away fired up to track Idaho’s implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. As Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education put it, there are 50 books to write about each state’s ESSA implementation.

I’m not going to commit to writing a book — but I come away realizing that ESSA is almost a K-12 beat unto itself. State officials such as Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra have clamored for autonomy. ESSA provides it, on everything from intervention on struggling schools to creating a school accountability framework.

The question is whether states will try to hide the ball, said former U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who has been at the forefront of federal education law.

“They’re not going to be able to say, ‘The federal government made me do this,’” said Miller.

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Greg Toppo of USA Today, left, facilitates a keynote by U.S. Secretary of Education John King at the Education Writers Association’s 69th national seminar Monday. (Photo by Katherine Taylor for EWA)

Beyond ESSA, I come away with ideas on everything from school security to testing to college and career counseling. As Education Secretary John King lamented the “totally unreasonable workloads” confronting counselors across the country, my mind went immediately to Idaho’s commitment to spend an additional $5 million on college and career counseling. Put that one on the to-do list of implementation stories to follow.

In closing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a word of thanks to EWA, which provided me a scholarship for this week’s seminar. This was my first EWA national seminar, although I’ve had the chance to attend two EWA data reporting seminars in the past.

Once again, I come back from an EWA event with a lot of stories to write. I look forward to pursuing them.