PROFILE: Otter walking a fine line on K-12

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a series of profiles of major candidates for governor and superintendent of public instruction.)

After eight years in office, there’s enough in Gov. Butch Otter’s educational record to alienate plenty of Idahoans.

There are Idahoans who are unlikely to forget — or forgive — Otter for his full-throated support of Propositions 1, 2 and 3, Superintendent Tom Luna’s education overhaul, overwhelmingly rejected by voters two years ago.

And there are Idahoans who believe Otter has abandoned his conservative roots with his unwavering support of the Idaho Core Standards.

As Otter seeks re-election, he is staying the course on both of these education fronts. But a key issue heading into the Nov. 4 election is funding — and how Idaho schools would fare during a third Otter term. Otter says he and the Legislature are committed to a five-year, $350 million plan to reinvest in K-12 and, in Otter’s words, make Idaho “an even better state for teachers.” Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff seeks to cast doubt on Otter’s commitment to education — calling the budget cuts that occurred under Otter’s watch an “unmitigated disaster” for schools.


Otter at BSU II
Speaking to Boise State University recently, Gov. Butch Otter had to answer questions about education budget cuts. “It wasn’t easy to make those cuts and it wasn’t nice.”

Props 1, 2 and 3 offer another clear contrast between Otter and Balukoff.

In campaign ads, the longtime Boise school trustee describes himself as an early opponent of the “Luna laws.” (The board formally opposed the propositions in September 2012.)

The Balukoff campaign seldom passes up a chance to link Otter to the unpopular propositions. For example, during a recent debate, Otter said his administration has never thought of technology as a substitute for teachers. The Twitter response from the Balukoff camp was pointed: “Well, except the #LunaLaws!” In its first version, which never reached Otter’s desk, Luna’s overhauls would have eliminated 770 teaching jobs.

Otter sticks to one talking point on the propositions. He maintains the propositions were a good product, but the process turned off Idahoans. As governor, however, Otter had the final say in the process; after the contentious debate and Statehouse demonstrations that defined the 2011 session, he signed all three measures into short-lived law.

Now, Otter says the mood is changing. He cites a series of bills that reinstated pieces of the Proposition 1 labor law. Some are only temporary laws, and some passed over the objections of Democrats and the Idaho Education Association, but some enjoyed bipartisan backing. “It took some work and it took some consensus building, and we got it,” he said in a recent interview.

Otter stakes much of his education reputation on the work of his education reform task force. In the aftermath of the vote on the propositions, the group drew up 20 far-reaching recommendations with a collective price tag of $350 million. Like the failed propositions, these recommendations have the potential to fundamentally reshape education in Idaho.

Otter likes to tout the widespread stakeholder support surrounding 2013 recommendations — but at the same time, he makes no bones about the fact that he believes the plan reestablishes many of the pieces of Propositions 1, 2 and 3. Nor does Otter back down when it comes to one of the task force’s most controversial recommendations: a tiered teacher licensure plan that has drawn fire from the IEA and many rank-and-file educators.

Otter downplays that notion that the tiered licensure flap undermines the consensus that has surrounded much of the task force’s work. He attributes much of the controversy to misunderstanding, and says he is committed to tiered licensure, and the associated five-year plan to boost teacher pay through a salary level. The first year’s installment, $23.7 million, is in Otter’s 2015-16 budget blueprint.

“Once we agree on the bottom line, I’m willing to defend it,” he said. “I’m committed. I’m all in.”

Committed to the core

Several Republican governors — from Indiana’s Mike Pence to Nikki Haley of South Carolina to Wisconsin’s Scott Walker — have pushed for a repeal of the Common Core standards. At least two GOP governors, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, have done a 180 on the issue and now oppose the math and English language standards.

However, Otter steadfastly supports implementing the Idaho Core Standards, one of the 20 recommendations from his task force.

“I’ve stayed the course because I have faith in it,” he said. “I believe in it.”

Otter likes the idea of having standards that allow Idaho to compare its students with counterparts in other states. The Common Core test will be long and tough, he said, but fair. But like many educators — including school superintendents who support Common Core — Otter harbors concerns with the exam, which will be fully implemented for the first time this spring, a few months after the election.

The online Common Core test will take several hours to complete — and in an interview, Otter wondered aloud whether the test could be broken up into pieces. (That’s already happening; during a field test of the exam this year, students were able to take the test in components.)

Otter’s vocal support of Common Core did not hurt him in the May GOP primary — his main rival, state Sen. Russell Fulcher of Meridian, is another convert who opposes the standards, but his campaign focused on the economy and Otter’s support of a state health insurance exchange.

Otter and Balukoff agree on Common Core. But Libertarian candidate John Bujak, a former Republican running to protest what he calls the GOP’s “house of cards,” has staked out Common Core as an issue. In the process, he repeats the talking points about federal involvement and data mining. “Common Core is nothing short of a method of indoctrinating Idaho’s children into the federal government’s culture of mediocrity while reporting personal data so that ‘Big Brother’ can keep its eyes on Idaho’s kids.”

The past and the future

Otter’s public speaking formula is as it’s always been: optimism laced with a homespun tone and a dash of self-deprecating humor. And his personality still seems tailor-made for politicking; after speaking recently to about 35 students at Boise State University, Otter carved out a few minutes to pose for selfies and smartphone photos, offer advice on legislative internships and talk informally on same-sex marriage and higher education funding.

That day, Otter also painted a fairly sober picture of the education landscape. He described what he heard in 2006 — when, disappointed after six years in Congress, Otter decided to run for governor. Business leaders said they couldn’t hire Idaho graduates, since they didn’t know how to write business letters or handle basic accounting.  College remedial classes were filled, as students tried to pick up skills they should have learned in high school. “There was a pretty obvious need for some kind of a change.”

Circumstances imposed change. Only nine states were hit harder by the Great Recession, Otter says, and this forced an unprecedented series of budget cuts to K-12 and higher education. Pressed by a student on the cuts, Otter seemed a bit defensive. “I anticipate no more cuts in education. … I didn’t want to make the cuts I had to make.”

Balukoff minces no words about those cuts. “For too many years, I’ve watched with growing concern as our state government’s chronic disinvestment in public schools has devastated communities across Idaho,” he said this week.

What does the future hold?

Speaking to the BSU students, Otter talked up the need for a “non-interruptable flow of revenue” to K-12 coffers. And New Plymouth School District Superintendent Ryan Kerby takes Otter at his word. A Republican who is running for Legislature himself, Kerby has kicked $200 into Otter’s campaign coffers.

Kerby believes Otter has positioned Idaho to invest in education. Otter sought tax relief, and now the Idaho is economy “flying back,” says Kerby. This will allow Otter to do the work he wants to do.

“I think he wants to be remembered as an education governor,” Kerby said. “I believe that this is going to be the legacy-building term.”

More reading: Balukoff makes education his top issue.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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