Tommy Ahlquist, candidate for governor

Editor’s note: A wide-open and critical election year is looming in Idaho in 2018. This is the first of a periodic series of interviews with candidates for state and federal office — with an emphasis on education topics.

When Tommy Ahlquist talks about education, he keeps circling back to one word: clarity.

Ahlquist says the state needs a clear, agreed-upon definition of student achievement. For the Republican gubernatorial candidate, that definition means students hit fourth-grade reading benchmarks, eighth-grade math benchmarks and graduate high school prepared for their future.

In an in-depth interview Tuesday, Ahlquist clarified some of his own education positions, and left others vague. Ahlquist voiced strong support for school vouchers. But the Boise developer and physician had no opinion on the science standards debate that has unfolded in the Statehouse over the past two winters. And while he lamented the working relationship between the State Board of Education and the State Department of Education, he had no strong opinion about the woman in charge at SDE, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra. “I don’t know her that well.”

Ahlquist, 49, is one of three big-name Republicans vying to succeed retiring Gov. Butch Otter. Unlike his rivals, Lt. Gov. Brad Little and U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, Ahlquist is a political newcomer. Ahlquist has outraised his two rivals, but has drawn no contributions from state political leaders and has supplemented his campaign with more than $378,000 of his own money.

Vouchers and school choice

Speaking earlier this month to a room full of school administrators — a skeptical audience when it comes to school vouchers — Ahlquist himself sounded unconvinced. He said he would need to see more details about a voucher system.

It was an incomplete answer, campaign adviser Todd Cranney later wrote in an email. He said Ahlquist had neglected to mention his support for vouchers.

In Tuesday’s interview, Ahlquist elaborated on the topic. He said he supports a menu of school choice options. He singled out high-achieving charter schools in North Idaho and Central Idaho’s remote Lemhi County. He said he backed vouchers, while acknowledging the political hurdles facing such a system. Idaho’s Constitution prohibits the use of public dollars to support church-owned schools — language that effectively precludes vouchers.

But Ahlquist also repeated what he said at the Idaho Association of School Administrators’ meeting in Boise. The devil is in the details, he said, and Idaho will not be able to replicate school choice in every rural community. “I think you’re just going to be thoughtful about how you go about it,” he said.

Common Core: ‘There was not a shared vision’

Ahlquist’s position on the Idaho Core Standards has also been unclear.

In June, the Associated Press reported that Ahlquist wanted to ditch the controversial math and English language arts standards. The Ahlquist campaign disputes the AP’s account, and says Ahlquist’s concerns were with Idaho’s Common Core rollout, and not the standards themselves. (Click here to read this backstory in full detail.)

On Tuesday, Ahlquist criticized the implementation, saying the process went poorly for his two school-age daughters and their teachers.

But the rollout occurred in 2013. If Ahlquist is elected, we would take office in January 2019 — more than five years after the standards took effect.

On Tuesday, Ahlquist was noncommittal about what he would do with the standards. He said he is “100 percent behind” strong standards. He also said he’d want to talk to educators before moving from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test, the online test aligned to the standards. Some educators say the SBAC test is too time-consuming, and yields limited data. But now that the SBAC has been in effect since 2015, Ahlquist says he is hearing from some educators who say the test is finally producing useful data.

Cut budgets, and taxes

Ahlquist has pledged to cut $100 million from the state’s budget in his first 100 days in office, perhaps his most controversial campaign promise. Sen. Shawn Keough and Rep. Maxine Bell — the Republican co-chairs of the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee — have criticized Ahlquist’s plan. Bell, R-Jerome, says it would be impossible for Ahlquist to make good on his promise without hurting education.

Education programs will receive nearly 63 percent of Idaho’s $3.5 billion 2017-18 general fund budget, with 48 percent of the budget going to K-12.

Ahlquist downplays the threat to education. He maintains that the state can save $60 million over three years, simply by self-insuring its employees. He believes the state could save considerable overhead on its capital projects — but he doesn’t have the same concern about how schools are managing their work. “It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of excess money in education.”

Ahlquist believes the state has money to cover a tax cut. He chides the 2017 Legislature for failing to cut unemployment taxes, a move that wouldn’t have affected the general fund budget that bankrolls education. Unlike Otter, Ahlquist supports repealing the sales tax on groceries, which could cut $80 million from the general fund.

Ahlquist has no position on a tax decision that has profoundly affected schools — the 2006 tax shift that cut school property taxes by $260 million, and used a sales tax increase to offset most of the cut. Since the 2006 tax shift, and during the recession, school districts have relied on ever-increasing supplemental property tax levies to make up the difference.

The spate of voter-approved levies points to a larger issue, Ahlquist said. After decades of piecemeal tax policy, it’s time for a comprehensive review. “People are going to pay for these things one way or another.”

Leadership style: ‘Some of it is tone and urgency’

Ahlquist says some great ideas came out of the 2013 K-12 task force, Otter’s attempt to reset the education debate after the bitter campaign over Propositions 1, 2 and 3. For example, he praises the $250 million career ladder plan to boost teacher salaries. “It’s a nice place to start.”

The task force represents Otter’s signature moment on K-12 — something he often hails as an unprecedented five-year plan for education. If Ahlquist is elected, the governing style seems sure to change.

Ahlquist would like to see his State Board take on more of a strategic role, while the SDE focuses on implementation. Ahlquist says Otter has made some great appointments to the State Board, but the board is so bogged down with minute details that it cannot focus on long-term vision.

But Ahlquist appears likely to delegate only so much to State Board appointees — and nothing to task forces. Drawing from his business background, he pledges to take a hands-on approach to an issue that is critical to Idaho’s economic health.

“Something as urgent as education,” he said, “will require the governor to be front and center on these issues.”

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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