Education set to be defining issue of 2014

Almost all of the buzz coming from the Statehouse has to do with how education will define the 2014 session.

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Gov. Butch Otter meets with reporters Friday to discuss his goals for the upcoming legislative sessions.

Gov. Butch Otter and top lawmakers spoke Friday about their priorities for the legislative session that opens Monday.

“I believe the most important issue… we will be facing this legislative session will actually be education and going forward on education,” Otter said.

“My budget will reflect exactly those guarantees, those promises, those trusted ideas … that both myself and the Legislature indicated: That as the economy turns around and as we have the resources available, we would obviously replenish, to the extent we could each and every year, those funds reduced to education.”

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, echoed those sentiments, saying the budget and education were No. 1 and No. 2 on his list of the top three priorities for the year.

“We will look at what we can fund now… then set a path forward for where we are going to go,” Hill said. “That means setting some priorities.”

In a way, the table has been set for months. In August, the 31 education stakeholders on the Governor’s Task Force for Improving Education issued a list of 20 recommendations that garnered bipartisan support and Otter’s blessing. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna put forth a budget recommendation in October that he billed as a first-year approach to incorporating those recommendations. Democrats have earned early support from top Republicans on four education bills meant to implement some of the recommendations.

After months of anticipation, it’s finally time to see if and how the recommendations will be implemented. Otter pledged to introduce a five-year plan for enacting all of the task force’s recommendations. This year, he said, officials will make a “down payment” on the future of education and the recommendations – which cover a host of issues, ranging from classroom technology to teacher pay and certification and subject mastery.

Members of both parties praised the task force’s cooperation and vision and welcomed the bipartisan support for the ideas.

But the recommendations come at a cost estimated to reach or exceed $350 million. And lawmakers have struggled mightily in recent years over who controls education policy and the direction reform should take.

This struggle was evident during the earliest Students Come First debates in 2011, the 2012 election season and the ultimate voter repeal of the Students Come First laws.

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Sen. Michelle Stennett

Discord continued during the 2013 session, when the Senate killed one proposed public school budget as part of a public spat between the Legislature’s budget-writing committee and the Senate Education Committee.

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, expressed hope that the early, widespread support for the recommendations could signal that differences are being put aside.

“The devil’s is always in the details, of course,” Stennett said. “It goes through quite a process on both sides. I hope we will be successful with what’s started off being received so well and so optimistically. How much success? I can only speculate.”

The Legislature may also wrestle with Idaho Core Standards. House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said residents are nervous because the standards have been painted as a federal education takeover. He wants to ensure student data and privacy is safeguarded, but he said he doesn’t want to take “a step backwards” by repealing the standards.

Otter also voiced clear support for the new language arts and mathematics standards.

“I believe it was the right thing to do,” Otter said. “I believe we do have to measure ourselves against the education that students are getting around the United States so that we can compete in the economy and in the real world. The answer is ‘I support it.’”

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