Otter, Balukoff spar on education — and the budget

The second debate between GOP Gov. Butch Otter and Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff revealed a few sharp distinctions on education — and paying for education.

The candidates fielded an hour’s worth of questions Thursday afternoon — before a live audience of City Club of Idaho Falls members, and before a City Club of Boise audience watching a simulcast.

Here’s what the candidates had to say on education topics:

School funding. Balukoff ripped the 2006 property tax relief law, engineered by then-Gov. Jim Risch, saying it resulted in a tax increase for many Idahoans and destabilized school funding. A sales tax increase failed to make up the difference, and more than 90 school districts have been forced to go back to patrons to approve supplemental tax levies to keep the lights on. As a result, he said, Idaho is not “maintaining and honoring” its constitutional mandate to fund a uniform public school system.

Otter defended both the 2006 law and the school funding structure. The state is paying 73 percent of the costs for public schools, he said, which is about as close as the state can get to meet its constitutional mandate.

Pre-K. The best immediate investment the state can make in student readiness is in pre-K, said Balukoff. “We don’t need a pilot program,” he said. “There’s data all over the country.”

Balukoff cited Boise County’s Basin School District, which is using federal funding to keep its pre-K program afloat. (Basin’s superintendent, John MacFarlane, is backing Balukoff.)

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Otter, however, said the Basin program proves that a statewide pre-K program is not needed. “We need to look at what is working in the state of Idaho.” If the state’s K-12 system is underfunded — as Balukoff and other critics claim — Otter questioned the push to add the “new burden” of pre-K.

Rural education. Asked about the plight of the state’s rural districts, Otter touted the Idaho Education Network, a $40 million broadband system that has connected nearly all of the state’s high schools and expanded educational offerings in small towns. “That was a substantial undertaking and at a substantial cost.”

Balukoff — who has criticized the Idaho Education Network contract, which has triggered a lengthy lawsuit and a federal review — didn’t dispute the importance of technology in schools. But he said the state still needs to do more to help rural districts recruit and retain teachers who take hard-to-fill positions. “You’re not going to replace teachers with technology.”

Paying for the future. Otter said he would stay the course on funding the $350 million plan from his education task force, over five years. “We’ve proposed earning our way into that.” And when the candidates had the chance to question each other, Otter asked Balukoff how he planned to pay for a range of short-range goals — including a repeal of the Risch property tax plan —which could carry an overall cost of $500 million.

Balukoff didn’t answer specifically. But he took shots at Otter’s original budget blueprint for 2014-15, which would have sunk $100 million into savings and tax relief.

“There’s money there … to make a bigger commitment to public education.”

All told, the candidates squared off before nearly 300 spectators in Idaho Falls and Boise, including a number of politicians and education stakeholders. The Idaho Falls audience included U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho; Democratic state superintendent’s candidate Jana Jones; and several Republican legislators. The Boise audience included West Ada District Superintendent Linda Clark; Joan Boren, one of Balukoff’s colleagues on the Boise School Board; and Jerry Evans, a Republican and former state superintendent, now endorsing Balukoff.

The candidates have two more debates on the schedule: an Oct. 14 debate at Northwest Nazarene University, which will air on KTVB; and an Oct. 30 debate which will air on Idaho Public Television.

More reading: Tweets from the debate, in Storify format.