Speaking to a room full of education and business leaders in Boise Tuesday, retiring Gov. Butch Otter reminisced about his school days and his political career.
Otter was the only member of his family to graduate from college, but first he had to finish high school. He graduated high school at age 20, after dropping out at age 16, and quipped that he was popular with his classmates because he was old enough to buy beer.
Barely a decade after high school, Otter found himself in Idaho’s House Education Committee — the “bad-boy committee,” and an assignment no lawmaker sought out. As a legislator and lieutenant governor, Otter was familiar with the yearly battles over the education budget. As governor, Otter thought it might be little more than a “pipe dream” to convince a conservative Legislature to sign off on a K-12 overhaul.
But as Otter’s 12 years as governor wind to a close, he took advantage of the opportunity to urge the state’s leaders to keep fighting for the next generation of students.
“Don’t give up on anybody,” said Otter, with some self-deprecation, “because a 20-year-old can’t buy beer today.”
Otter spoke at “Educating for the Age of Agility: The Governor’s Conference on the Future of Work.” Co-sponsored by Idaho Business for Education and the Idaho Workforce Development Council, the conference focused on the connection between schools and work force development.
To Otter, the connection is clear. He predicted that the state could create 105,000 jobs in the years to come — but produce workers who are qualified only for a fraction of these new jobs. This puts businesses in a precarious position. Businesses might like Idaho’s predictable tax and regulatory structure, Otter said, but businesses also need a predictable work force.
Otter touted some of the steps the state has taken in the past 12 years, such as the advent of community colleges. The fast-growing College of Western Idaho and the fledgling College of Eastern Idaho are filling what had been an unmet need, serving students who aren’t interested in attending a four-year school.
“Community college whets their appetite,” Otter said.
On Tuesday morning, a panel of K-12 educators talked about innovation in the classroom, and barriers to innovation.
Martin Jones — a career-technical teacher at North Idaho’s remote and innovative Clark Fork High School — talked about his transition from a career in engineering and the classroom. He took an alternative certification path to a job in teaching, and said his professional background has helped him bring a problem-solving mindset to his new career. “I’m a big believer in cross-training.”
Sonia Galaviz, an award-winning teacher at Boise’s Garfield Elementary School, decried red tape — at all levels of the school system. It’s tough to set up an elementary school field trip to take water samples on the Boise River, for fear that kids might fall into the water. “It happens, when they’re 10.”
But Galaviz also challenged the room full of business leaders to be a partner with their local schools. “How are you giving to this system, where we expect such incredible results?”
Attendees at the day-long conference included Otter; Lt. Gov. Brad Little, the GOP’s nominee to succeed Otter; Republican state superintendent Sherri Ybarra; Cindy Wilson, Ybarra’s Democratic opponent; several top State Department of Education staffers; State Board of Education executive director Matt Freeman and several State Board members; state Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett; and outgoing House Education Committee chair Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree.