DeMordaunt leaves a hole in education leadership

Outgoing House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt likes to joke that serving one year on his committee is the equivalent of two years on any other.

Each year at the Statehouse, the education committees are charged with directing policy work that shapes classrooms across Idaho’s 115 school districts and 47 charter schools.

Reed DeMordaunt2
Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, left, hugs Rep. Wendy Horman on the final day of the 2016 legislative session.

The summer after DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, took the helm of House Education in 2013, Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education issued 20 reform recommendations for transforming education in Idaho. The lion’s share of the work to implement those recommendations fell to DeMordaunt’s committee, it’s Senate counterpart, the State Board of Education and the State Department of Education.

Eventually, it proved too much for DeMordaunt to balance with his professional life. On Feb. 19 he announced he would not seek reelection after six years in the Legislature so that he could instead focus on his business, Eagle-based Med Management Technology

“It becomes an issue of bandwidth, and at a certain point in time you realize that you don’t have the bandwidth to do everything,” DeMordaunt said. “I felt that after serving six years here my focus on my business had slipped, and I didn’t have bandwidth to do both.”

The move not only means DeMordaunt is walking away from a position of influence within the education policy arena, but it creates a leadership vacancy atop one of the House’s most-watched committees.

Looking back

After four sessions leading the House Education Committee, DeMordaunt said he is proudest of the work lawmakers have done on reforming teacher pay and shining a spotlight on the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.

In 2015, DeMordaunt was one of legislators leading the charge to increase teacher pay and tie accountability provisions to raises through the career ladder.

The law is one of the signature accomplishments of the 2015 legislative session, and it calls for increasing teacher pay by more than $125 million over five years.

But getting it passed was a fight. Educators and the public vocally objected to a related proposal known as tiered licensure, and it took three drafts of a career ladder bill before the legislation even gained traction in DeMordaunt’s own committee.

Nevertheless, the career ladder work will continue as lawmakers just finished the second year of a planned five-year implementation.

“What was key in the career ladder was we finally started looking at (student achievement) outcomes that, over long term, are going to be transformative in education,” DeMordaunt said. “We still have a ways to go there, but we’ve laid the foundation for that and I would hope over the next couple years we expand that concept.”

Along with Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, DeMordaunt also helped create the Legislature’s STEM caucus. The caucus, essentially an informal group of lawmakers rallying around the same cause, sparked the idea for the state’s STEM Action Center. The caucus members met on at least a monthly basis over the past two legislative sessions to develop strategies to focus on STEM education.

As a software executive and education advocate, DeMordaunt worried that lawmakers hadn’t picked up on the vision he and Nonini shared. But the meetings continued to attract lawmakers, the STEM Action Center launched last summer and this year’s Legislature provided a finding boost to the center.

“Clearly we have not had enough focus when we see tens of thousands of jobs nationally being left vacant,” DeMordaunt said. “These are good paying jobs that require a very high level of thinking, and as a society we have to make every effort to provide education for students to be able to fill these jobs.”

One proposal that didn’t advance under DeMordaunt’s watch was funding for early childhood education. Idaho is one of only five states that does not fund pre-kindergarten programs. One of the Democrats on DeMordaunt’s committee, Boise Rep. Hy Kloc, was one of the Legislature’s leading advocates for pre-K and managed to introduce a pre-K pilot program bill in 2014 and worked with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to introduce another bill in 2015. Neither bill passed. This year, DeMordaunt did not call any hearings on a pre-K proposal.

Leadership style

DeMordaunt is viewed as a consensus builder among fellow members of House Education.

Patrick McDonald
Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise

“A natural leader — that’s what Reed is,” Boise Republican Rep. Patrick McDonald said. “Those kind of things come so natural to him. He is one that builds that consensus.”

McDonald joined the Legislature before the 2014 session as a replacement appointment. Although he has taught at the postsecondary level, McDonald’s experience was in law enforcement and he worried he could be overwhelmed on K-12 education issues. But McDonald said DeMordaunt took him under his wing.

“When I had a question, I knew I could go to him,” McDonald said. “A lot of those things that I was experiencing, he had answers to.”

But lawmakers said he was more than just a mentor.

“I’ve learned so much from him,” Vice Chairwoman Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, said. “I’ve learned how to be patient, how to look at the big picture on what we’re doing and I’ve learned it takes a lot of small pieces to get to the big piece and to make the whole pie work.”

In delivering a tribute to DeMordaunt on the final day of the session, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, called DeMordaunt “a smart, articulate man.”

“The state is a better place for you having been here,” Bedke told him.

From McDonald’s perspective, House Education may not have been as productive or successful without DeMordaunt in charge.

“He is the kind of guy who has led us though some of the most difficult years, both from a funding standpoint and policy development,” McDonald said.

Looking ahead

DeMordaunt will finish his legislative term, which runs until his successor is sworn in next January. But his upcoming departure will leave House Republican leadership with an important decision to make regarding the future of House Education. The state is three years into implementing Otter’s task force recommendations, and two years into implementing the career ladder teacher salary law. Both are estimated to require five-year phase-in periods, meaning there are two or three years of work remaining to implement the state’s signature education reform issues.

Julie VanOrden
Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree

GOP leadership likely won’t announce the new House Education chairman until the Legislature’s organizational session in December — after the May primary and November’s general election.

Even though the decision is more than six months away, possible candidates could include Rep. Wendy Horman, an Idaho Falls Republican who carried the education budgets, or VanOrden, House Education’s vice chair.

“I certainly am interested in doing that,” VanOrden said.

McDonald has noticed DeMordaunt mentoring VanOrden over the past two years.

“In a lot of respects, (VanOrden) is like Reed when it comes to gathering consensus,” McDonald said. “Those are the kinds of things that will probably continue and really be needed in committee.”

All in the family

DeMordaunt’s departure opened the door for his wife, Gayann DeMordaunt, to run for his old seat. Interviewed separately, the DeMordaunts said the move was not orchestrated and that she would have never run against her husband.

“After my (retirement) announcement, there were many people who reached out to her, knowing her capabilities who said, “You know, you should really run for Reed’s seat.”

Like her husband, Gayann DeMordaunt is active within education and political circles. She is a member of the Charter School Commission, is one of the founders of North Star Charter School and has been involved with Republican politics at the state and county level since moving to Idaho in 2000.

In 2012, Gayann DeMordaunt ran unsuccessfully for the position of chair of the Idaho Republican Party.

On May 17, Gayann DeMordaunt faces former Rep. Douglas R. Jones in the Republican Primary. Prior to relocating to Meridian, Jones served in the Legislature for more than 20 years, including a stint as chairman of the Agriculture Affairs Committee. The winner of the Republican primary faces Democrat Glida Bothwell of Eagle in November’s general election.

If she’s successful, Gayann DeMordaunt said she would like to follow in her husband’s footsteps with an assignment on House Education.

“That would be where my natural inclination is,” Gayann DeMordaunt said.