TWIN FALLS — The chairman of the Senate Education Committee told an education task force Monday that he is worried about accountability in education and student success.
“In my opinion, Idaho is lacking a lot in accountability,” Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said. “We have struggled over the last five, six, 10 years of having good measuring devices — having data available.
“I believe we are close to having that data available,” he continued.
Mortimer made his comments during the second full meeting of Gov. Brad Little’s “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” task force meeting. The 26-member task force is charged with developing five or six education reform recommendations focused on early childhood literacy and college and career readiness.
Mortimer’s comments touched off a nearly daylong discussion about accountability, education goals, funding, data and transparency.
Task force members made no final recommendations Monday, but the debate centered around two big themes:
- What are the state’s goals for schools and who should be held accountable for them?
- How do schools and policymakers make sense of the complicated intersection of accountability and the philosophy of local control?
Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, agreed with Mortimer’s concerns about accountability. She said lawmakers are working to get to a point where Idaho removes the strings attached to funding, cuts red tape and provides flexibility to local districts while, at the same time, introducing accountability for taxpayer dollars and student achievement.
Idaho is at a crossroads with accountability and school funding alike. For the previous three years, a legislative interim committee worked to develop a new school funding formula proposal that allows money to follow students and removes many funding earmarks. The proposal stalled out in the 2019 legislative session, but the debate is expected to pick up again in 2020.
Meanwhile, Idaho was without a statewide accountability system from 2014 until the State Board of Education approved a new one in 2017.
Idaho’s new accountability plan does several things. It calls for the identification and support of the lowest-performing public schools and charters. It also contains longterm goals for education that have been endorsed by the State Board, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra and former Gov. Butch Otter. At this early juncture, Idaho has struggled to make progress on its longterm education goals from the accountability plan. In May, Idaho EdNews reported Idaho failed to meet 33 of the 34 interim targets in the first year. However, the longterm goals come due in 2022, so Idaho school leaders still have time to turn things around.
Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, and Kimberly Superintendent Luke Schroeder said one of the problems with accountability is that Idaho changes courses so often — whether through replacing assessment tests or rewriting academic standards — that’s it’s difficult to focus on progress toward goals.
“I would welcome some simplicity and clarification of what it is you us want to do,” Schroeder said. “What are we being held accountable for… teachers are constantly being told they are doing a terrible job.”
House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, and others cautioned the task force about using accountability data to punish individuals or low performing schools that may need support the most.
“As we talk about these dollars going here and we forget about so many other variables that can never be controlled we are setting ourselves up for failure right out of the gate,” Erpelding said.
The accountability debate will continue with subsequent task force and subcommittee meetings this summer. However, Horman was blunt when it came to her solution for embracing accountability and focusing on student success in Idaho.
“We need to own our data as a state,” Horman said.
About 30 people attended Monday’s meeting at College of Southern Idaho, including school administrators and the leaders of education stakeholder groups.
Next up, several of the task force’s smaller subcommittees will meet throughout July. The whole task force meets next Aug. 1 in Moscow. Plans call for the task force to vote on finalizing recommendations Nov. 4.