Idaho politics is a lot like college football

‘Tis the college football bowl season … so why not compare the strategies of football to the strategies of winning at education policymaking?

The 2014 Legislature begins Monday, Jan. 6, with much at stake, including the overlap of an election year. A handful of education leaders have different roles and responsibilities during the season, or in this case, the session, and we have outlined a players’ program for you to follow.

We’ve already seen signs of teamwork among this year’s players. Traditional rivals worked together on the Governor’s Task Force for Education to develop 20 recommendations. Those recommendations were the springboard for draft bills unveiled by Democrats, and the bills have bipartisan support.

So expect an entertaining season for you to watch and cheer from the sidelines. To help you be a good spectator, here is a breakdown of the key players and what you can expect from them:


Gov. Butch Otter.
He will introduce the game plan on Jan. 6, when he delivers his State of the State address. His plans for education and education funding will start the rest of the players in motion over the coming months. The plan will take twists and unpredicted turns — maybe even a fumble along the way. He can’t go onto the playing field — he’s not allowed on the third floor of the Statehouse during the session — but he can call the players to his second-floor office for some sideline conversations and to make halftime adjustments.


Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna.
He’s the one responsible for executing a plan on the field. Luna will consult with his coach and all the other players, looking for a compromise and a path that most can support and execute. He has already shown us his playbook, with his budget proposal, and he’ll get a chance to talk strategy with lawmakers in January. Will he have to call an audible along the way?


Sens. Russ Fulcher, Steven Thayn and Janie Ward-Engelking and Rep. Wendy Horman.
These four sit on their respective education committees. Fulcher, R-Meridian, is running for governor. Thayn, R-Emmett, is not a fan of Idaho’s current education standards and may try to repeal them. Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, and Horman, R-Idaho Falls, both approve of the new standards and will fight to keep them. Ward-Engelking is a former teacher, appointed to the Senate on Dec. 20, and Horman is a former trustee. Both will be actively involved in any education-related issue or debate.


Rep. Maxine Bell and Sen. Dean Cameron.
They are the co-chairs of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Ultimately, the fate of education funding could be in their hands because these two play a pivotal role in deciding how much money should be disbursed. These two, and the 18 other members of the JFAC receiving corps, have to juggle competing budget requests from all state agencies. Ultimately, they may have to settle for a short gain rather than a big play for education.


Sen. John Goedde and Rep. Reed DeMordaunt.
These two education committee chairmen must carry the day-to-day grind, and can’t let up for a minute. Their committees meet almost every day and every day they weigh the different requests and needs. All key education debates start in these committees.


Penni Cyr (president of the Idaho Education Association)
Karen Echeverria (executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association)
Rob Winslow (executive director at Idaho Association of School Administrators)
Mike Lanza (co-founder of Idaho Parents and Teachers Together)
Rod Gramer (president of Idaho Business for Education)
Terry Ryan (executive director of the Idaho Charter School Network)

These players have specific constituencies to represent — teachers, trustees, school administrators, parents, businesses and charters. They have agendas. They need to lobby for the people they represent. Hear their arguments and watch what they contribute. All will have some influence on Idaho education, but they won’t be in on every move.


Tim Hill (deputy superintendent of finance and technology)
TJ Bliss (director of assessment)
Jason Hancock (deputy chief of staff)

These three State Department of Education staffers are experts in their fields — one on the education budget, one on curriculum and testing and the other on bills and Idaho history. A big part of their job is to make sure everyone complies with the laws and the rules and stays within the boundaries. They will do much consulting, explaining and guiding.


Anyone running for office and not currently in power.
They aren’t in the game, but you’ll hear from them a lot, shouting their opinions from the sidelines. The likely head cheerleader will be A.J. Balukoff, a Democratic candidate for governor and a long-time Boise School District trustee. Watch for more candidates to jump into the fray in the next few weeks. The cheerleaders won’t be responsible for making any plays or decisions but they’ll want to be a part of the game next year, so will try and influence decisions from the sidelines.


For Otter, Luna and all the legislators and candidates for higher office, campaign season overlaps with governing season. That means the next games are May 20, the day of the primary election, and Nov. 4, the day of the general election.

You now have the starting lineup and the schedule. Enjoy the season.

Jennifer Swindell

Jennifer Swindell

Managing editor and CEO Jennifer Swindell founded Idaho Education News in 2013. She has led the online news platform as it has grown in readership and engagement every year, reaching over two million pageviews a year. Jennifer has more than 35 years of experience in Idaho journalism. She also has served as a public information officer for Idaho schools and as a communication director at Boise State University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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