Editor’s note: A wide-open and critical election year is looming in Idaho in 2018. This is the third of a periodic series of interviews with candidates for state and federal office — with an emphasis on education topics.
Lt. Gov. Brad Little applauds Idaho’s recent, signature K-12 education efforts.
But he also recognizes that Idaho hasn’t delivered on its centerpiece education goal — the “60 percent” postsecondary goal. The state’s college completion numbers haven’t really improved; they’ve stagnated.
Idaho’s next governor will inherit this dilemma. The answer, Little says, requires changing the state’s mindset. The Emmett native remembers a time when hometown high school graduates could walk into a good job at the nearby Boise Cascade timber mill. That plant is gone, and so too are those times.
“We have an obligation to explain how important education is today,” Little said in an interview this week.
Little is one of three big-name Republicans seeking to succeed retiring Gov. Butch Otter. Boise developer and doctor Tommy Ahlquist and U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador are also running.
Little has Otter’s endorsement — and, for good or ill, he carries the label of the race’s “establishment” candidate.
‘I still think it’s the right goal’
In the heart of the 2016 session, the Legislature reaffirmed its support for the “60 percent” goal — the idea that 60 percent of Idaho’s 25- to 34-year-olds should hold some form of a postsecondary degree. The nonbinding resolution was an “establishment” proposal, backed by a who’s who of Statehouse regulars — just like the 60 percent goal itself, which has the support of Idaho’s education, business and political leaders. Little emerged as the resolution’s sponsor and spokesman.
Passing a nonbinding resolution is one thing. Moving the state’s college completion rate is a taller order. In 2015, only 42 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds met Idaho’s postsecondary benchmark.
Otter’s higher education task force has given up on hitting the 60 percent goal by the 2020 target date — a deadline restated in the 2016 legislative resolution. Little has all but given up on 2020 as well; “short of a miracle,” he said, that timeline is out of reach.
But he remains steadfast on the 60 percent benchmark.
“I still think it’s the right goal,” he said. “It’s a measurable, simple goal.”
Little says the process will begin to pay dividends. Idaho’s advanced opportunities program — which covers the costs for high school students who take college-level courses — is probably helping students who were college-bound anyway, he said. But he also said the program should gradually drive down college costs.
And Little also believes Idaho can get closer to the 60 percent goal by growing its career-technical education programs.
Following the five-year plan
In many ways, Little’s vision for education aligns with Otter — and, more specifically, the K-12 task force Otter convened in 2013.
Teacher pay. Little supports the task force’s top-dollar recommendation: the career ladder, the five-year, $250 million plan to boost Idaho teacher salaries. The increased salaries — coupled with a robust public employee pension system — are starting to stem the tide of teachers leaving Idaho for neighboring states.
Common Core. Little supports the Idaho Core Standards, the state’s version of Common Core, endorsed by the task force. “We’ve got enough Idaho fingerprints on it,” he said. Similarly, Little is in no hurry to ditch the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, the lengthy online exam aligned to the standards.
Literacy. Little is encouraged by the early results from Idaho’s $11.25 million-a-year reading initiative — another offshoot of the task force report. Test scores improved slightly during the first year of the initiative, which pays for extra help for kindergarten through third-grade students who are not reading at grade level. Little emphasizes that the literacy initiative must be a long-term effort.
“You’ve got to make an investment today and it takes a while to see the return,” he said.
Changes in course?
In February, a platoon of pre-kindergarten advocates descended on the Statehouse to make their annual case for early childhood education. They had no bill — and no immediate hope of securing state dollars from a Legislature that has long resisted funding pre-K.
Little joined the lineup of school superintendents, business leaders and early learning advocates, and described early childhood education as an essential. “The future — both of our quality of life and our economic success — is dependent on this issue.”
Little’s position is likely to rankle some conservatives who will vote in May’s closed Republican primary. This week, he explained his perspective.
If Idaho’s goal is to have third-graders reading at grade level, the state has to look at early education. The answers could take many forms: pre-K, all-day kindergarten, increased parental involvement, reduced K-3 class sizes. Little suggests a line item that gives school districts a block of money to address early education, as they see fit.
Little could find himself at odds with conservatives on two other K-12 issues.
School choice. Little is skeptical of school vouchers — a funding mechanism that is popular with school choice advocates, but banned by the Idaho Constitution. While Ahlquist has said he will push for vouchers, Little says a voucher system could sap rural school funding. “I have to look at the short-term and the long-term ramifications.”
Pay raises for veteran teachers. Little has questions about master teacher premiums — which will provide three-year, $4,000-a-year bonuses to qualified veteran teachers. The premiums won’t begin until 2019-20, and some Republican legislators have already asked questions about how much the premiums will cost. Little isn’t sure that the premiums alone will be enough to retain experienced teachers.
“It’s a competitive issue,” he said. “You’ve got to be open to the market.”
MORE READING FROM THIS SERIES:
Tommy Ahlquist: ‘It’s creating that clarity’
Luke Malek: ‘We need every dollar that we are putting into education’