Otter wants State Board to take ‘more active role’ on K-12

Three months ago, Gov. Butch Otter asked his State Board of Education to pull a 180.

Otter asked the board to take a “more active role” in K-12 issues — while acknowledging that, in the past, he had asked the board to focus on higher education.

In a June 30 letter to State Board members, Otter said he wanted to provide the board “clear direction” for the future. And while the State Board has always had a hand in K-12 policy, the day-to-day administration over K-12 falls to the State Department of Education, headed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra.

K-12 governance has been a touchy issue in the past, pitting previous board appointees against elected state superintendents. This time around, spokesmen for the State Board and Ybarra say the parties are in sync.

What Otter said

In his letter, obtained this week by Idaho Education News, Otter said he wanted to maintain momentum on K-12 policy — two years after the State Board had headed up work on an education reform task force.

“Over the last several years, the Board has focused mainly on higher education, at my request. With the work you have done guiding the task force and with the importance of implementing the recommendations, I believe the Board must take a more active role in K-12 issues.”

The task force of education, political and business leaders agreed on a far-reaching list of 20 recommendations. Since those 2013 meetings, lawmakers have taken early steps to implement the recommendations — such as the career ladder to boost teacher pay, a shift to mastery-based learning and K-12 budgets that have reversed some funding cuts imposed during the Great Recession.

In the future, Otter said, “it may be necessary for the board to assume management” of task force initiatives.

Who’s who?

Idaho’s constitution intertwines the State Board, the state superintendent and the State Department of Education.

The constitution puts the State Board in charge of the “general supervision of the state educational institutions and public school system.” This K-through-college mission differs from boards of regents in other states — bodies that focus only on higher education.

Idaho’s state superintendent is a constitutional officer, elected by the voters. The superintendent then heads up the State Department of Education, Idaho’s K-12 administrative agency.

The state superintendent also is a full voting member of the State Board, joined by seven members appointed by the governor. That gives the governor the power to shape the balance of the State Board — and Otter is placing more of a premium on K-12 experience. Since 2014, he has appointed Debbie Critchfield, a Cassia County School District employee and former trustee; and Linda Clark, superintendent of the West Ada School District. Otter appointed Clark in on July 31, a month after writing his letter to the State Board.

How does this work?

Idaho’s odd K-12 political structure can lead to some tensions. During Republican Dirk Kempthorne’s eight years as governor, his appointed State Board members often clashed openly with Democratic state superintendent Marilyn Howard. The result was a protracted power struggle over K-12 governance.

This time around, Otter and Ybarra are fellow Republicans — but the state’s education power structure is in transition. Ybarra is in her first year as state superintendent, three of Otter’s seven State Board appointees have been in place for less than 15 months and longtime State Board executive director Mike Rush left Idaho in June for a job in South Dakota.

Despite the turnover, the State Board can assume more responsibility for K-12 without losing sight of higher education, State Board spokesman Blake Youde said. “This large focus works perfectly with our board.”

At the staff level, he says, the State Board and the State Department of Education are making a real effort to collaborate. He downplays the suggestion that the board could usurp Ybarra, since she has a vote on the board herself. “She is as much a member of the board as the other appointed members are.”

Ybarra sees Otter’s letter as a simple reminder to stay the course on task force recommendations, spokesman Jeff Church said. And in an era of dual credit and advanced learning programs, the lines between K-12 and higher education are blurring anyway.

“Students throughout Idaho deserve to have their government agencies working together to secure their future,” he said.