Little and Ahlquist talk education — and echo common themes

It wasn’t billed as a debate, and it was short on disagreement.

Gubernatorial candidates Brad Little and Tommy Ahlquist agreed on several education topics Wednesday afternoon, during a joint appearance at the Idaho Association of School Administrators’ conference in Boise.

Both said the state needs to keep boosting salaries in hopes of offsetting teacher shortages. Both said they were skeptical about school vouchers. Lamenting the rising costs of health insurance, both said a statewide or regional pool could provide cash-strapped school districts some financial relief.

Even one disagreement was tame — and arcane.

Tommy Ahlquist

“I’m not a task force guy,” said Ahlquist, a Boise developer and physician. Ahlquist said Idaho’s next governor can build on Gov. Butch Otter’s 2013 education task force — but Ahlquist pledged to take a hands-on approach to education policy.

“I probably am the task force man,” said Little, who has been Idaho’s lieutenant governor and Otter’s second in command since 2009. The K-12 task force was needed to build consensus, Little said, and move past the divisive debate over former state superintendent Tom Luna’s proposed education overhauls.

Brad Little

Ahlquist and Little are two of the three major Republican candidates looking to succeed the retiring Otter. First Congressional District Rep. Raul Labrador did not attend Wednesday’s event, citing a prior family commitment.

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It’s still nine months before these three candidates will square off in the May 2018 GOP primary — but collectively, the candidates raised more than $1.5 million in the first six months of 2017.

While the fundraising race has cut along the Idaho GOP’s ideological divide, Wednesday’s discussion was devoid of sniping between the candidates.

Ahlquist chided the 2017 Legislature — and Otter — for failing to pass tax cuts, a dispute that ended up before the Idaho Supreme Court. Little offered a veiled criticism of the state’s administrative rules, saying the state’s rules need a thorough “scouring.”

But both candidates offered an optimistic view of the state’s education system.

Little cited improved reading scores, in the first year of Idaho’s $11.25 million-a-year literacy initiative, and said the state is gradually rebuilding school budgets after the Great Recession. “I really like the trajectory that we’re on.”

Ahlquist said Idaho needs a clear — and well-understood — definition of student achievement. However, he said the state is small enough and nimble enough to build the best education system in the nation. “I know we can figure this out.”

About 100 people attended Wednesday’s event — including district superintendents from across the state; Pete Koehler, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s chief deputy; and state Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, the House’s assistant majority leader and a Labrador supporter.

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