BLACKFOOT — Candidates on both sides of the ticket vying for Idaho’s governorship agree that Idaho public education should put more emphasis on career-technical programs to close the gap between the classroom and jobs.
Four gubernatorial candidates fielded questions from a panel of Idaho business and economic development leaders in Blackfoot on Thursday night. Most of the conversation centered on the economy, but all the candidates connected the success of Idaho’s economy to education.
“Digital delivery” of more college courses would help Idaho “pick up the slack” in education and jobs, said Lt. Gov. Brad Little, a GOP candidate for governor.
Little’s opponent Tommy Ahlquist echoed the career-technical refrain and stressed getting broadband to all Idaho schools.
“We gotta have it if we want to keep up,” Ahlquist said.
The two Democratic candidates mentioned similar needs, but criticized what they see as a lack of inclusion for Idaho’s rural students and minorities.
“Idaho is sometimes perceived as unwelcoming, particularly to the LGBTQ community,” said Democratic candidate A.J. Ballukoff.
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Balukoff’s primary opponent Paulette Jordan said voters are “disgruntled, disengaged and disappointed,” adding that Idaho’s rural students lack adequate access to advance placement courses. Jordan also lamented “high” college tuition and stressed the importance of union apprenticeship programs in schools.
Idaho’s “failing schools” stigma also needs to change, Balukoff said. He believes closer ties between schools and businesses would help.
“Companies are eager to help kids learn about their business and available jobs,” Balukoff said.
Little and Ahlquist both agreed Idaho should nix its much-debated grocery tax — a move that critics say could threaten education funding.
Gov. Butch Otter last year vetoed a bill that would have repealed Idaho’s sales tax on groceries. A repeal would have gone into effect for the 2018-19 budget year and cut about $80 million a year from the state’s general fund. Traditionally, K-12 and higher education receive about 60 percent of general fund dollars.
“How to make up for that forgone revenue has not been expressed,” Otter wrote in a letter explaining his veto. “I doubt it has been much considered.”
Candidates also fielded questions from attendees, who thinned out from about 150 during the GOP portion of the forum to about 100 during the Democratic portion.
U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, another GOP gubernatorial candidate, didn’t attend.
Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho (REDI) sponsored the forum, which was held in Blackfoot’s performing arts center and moderated by KIFI news anchors Karole Honas and Jay Hildebrandt.
Idaho’s primary elections are May 15.