Raul Labrador, candidate for governor

Editor’s note: A wide-open and critical election year is looming in Idaho in 2018. This is the fifth of a periodic series of interviews with candidates for state and federal office — with an emphasis on education topics. 

Some good ideas have come from Gov. Butch Otter’s K-12 task force, Rep. Raul Labrador says.

For example, Labrador says he supports the task force’s big-ticket item, the five-year, $250 million career ladder plan to boost teacher pay.

But perhaps not surprisingly, that sentiment doesn’t extend from Otter’s task force to Otter himself. Labrador decries a lack of vision on education from the governor’s office — and if Labrador is elected governor, the father of five pledges to take more of an active role.

“If we’re going to take some of the credit then I think we need to take some of the blame at the governor’s office,” Labrador said in an interview this week.

Labrador is one of three big-name Republicans seeking to succeed the retiring Otter. Lt. Gov. Brad Little and Boise developer and physician Tommy Ahlquist are also vying for the May nomination.

Labrador, an immigration attorney, will leave Congress after four terms. Despite eight years on Capitol Hill, and the high profile that comes with it, Labrador still casts himself in the outsider’s role. His campaign paints Little, Otter’s preferred successor, as the establishment’s pick. And Labrador has a history of bucking the GOP establishment; before he was elected to Congress, Labrador was among a group of conservative legislators that stymied Otter’s attempt to raise taxes for road projects.

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Inheriting the task force plan

Labrador disagrees with the K-12 task force on one big issue. He wants to dump the Idaho Core Standards, the state’s version of Common Core.

Labrador says he supports strong standards, and wants high expectations. But he believes Common Core, now in use in about three dozen states, has become a profit-making tool for the vendors that sell curriculum tied to the standards.

Labrador points out that it took seven or eight years for Idaho to become tied to Common Core, so it will take years to replace the standards. “It’s not something that’s going to happen automatically.”

Labrador wants to continue the career ladder, a plan rooted in the task force’s work. Even though the career ladder’s salary schedule is optional — districts can use the schedule, or simply plug the state’s new dollars into a local salary plan — Labrador thinks the state needs to give the districts more autonomy to boost teacher pay or hire more teachers.

“We need to trust the school districts,” he said. “We need to trust the administrators.”

On school choice — and the Trump agenda

Labrador says Idaho should look at creating a voucher system. Vouchers are unconstitutional in Idaho, under its “Blaine amendment,” which forbids the use of state money to support church-owned schools. But he believes a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling provides an opportunity to revisit the Blaine amendment.

Labrador also wants to see more charter schools, and more innovative charter schools. And he places some of the onus on Idaho’s Public Charter School Commission, the State Board of Education panel that regulates charter schools, and licenses some of Idaho’s charter schools. “They’re making it more difficult to start new charter schools.”

But while Labrador supports school choice — and ardently supports the Trump administration — he says he’s not very interested in the Trump administration’s push for vouchers and charters. Earlier this year, Labrador co-sponsored a bill to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education.

The department sends $264 million a year to Idaho — for special education, for aid for high-poverty schools and for myriad other programs. Even without a federal education department, Labrador would want to see the funding continue to flow, but with no strings attached.

”We’re like money laundering here,” he said.

Beyond high school

The next governor is likely to inherit recommendations from another Otter task force, focused on higher education. Last week, this task force issued a dozen recommendations designed to boost Idaho’s languid college completion rates. The recommendations include a “digital campus” linking rural students to Idaho colleges, and linking some higher education funding to performance metrics, such as the number of degrees awarded by a college.

Labrador said he liked what he’s heard about the plan, but wants more time to sift through the details.

Labrador also supports Idaho’s “60 percent goal” — getting 60 percent of the state’s 25- to 34-year-olds to hold some form of postsecondary degree or certificate. A who’s who of Idaho’s political, business and education leaders back the 60 percent goal, and Otter assembled the K-12 and higher ed task forces to try to nudge Idaho closer to this elusive milestone.

But Labrador says the work begins with high school, and with students and parents. High school students will be more engaged in math and science and English when they see these classes will help them get good jobs — jobs that may or may not require college.

State Board is ‘lacking a real vision’

Labrador wouldn’t comment on one recent dustup, involving Boise State University President Bob Kustra. After Kustra publicly criticized Labrador’s response to the fatal Charlottesville, Va., demonstrations, Labrador took to talk radio to suggest it may be time for Kustra to step aside.

Still, the next governor will have an opportunity to shape higher education policy — in part, by appointing members to the State Board. Ultimately, a governor’s State Board appointees evaluate university presidents.

Labrador wants to see a different approach from the State Board. He says the relationship between the State Board and the State Department of Education could be better, and he’d like to see the board move beyond internal conflict.

Labrador says he wants more focus from the State Board. And not surprisingly, he wants a focus that aligns with his own education principles: school choice, parental involvement and making sure dollars follow students.

“I think the State Board has been lacking a real vision from the governor’s office,” Labrador said.

MORE READING FROM THIS SERIES:

Tommy Ahlquist: ‘It’s creating that clarity’

Luke Malek: ‘We need every dollar that we are putting into education’

Brad Little: ‘We have an obligation to explain how important education is today’

David Leroy: ‘We are making false promises to ourselves in many quarters’

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