Kurt Liebich spent his first few moments as State Board of Education president trying to refocus Idaho’s education priorities.
Liebich, a Boise businessman, was part of Gov. Brad Little’s Our Kids, Idaho’s Future task force in 2019, which set five goals for Idaho’s K-12 education outlook.
To say those goals have been interrupted would be an understatement. First, a global pandemic closed schools and sent Idaho students home for months on end, exacerbating achievement gaps and taking a toll on student mental health.
Then, in a surprising 2021 legislative session, politicians strayed from both the task force goals and the impact of the pandemic to instead focus on fears that Idaho’s schools are indoctrinating youth with a leftist agenda.
“I would have thought the conversation would have been about the impact of the pandemic,” Liebich said at an April news conference, minutes after taking the helm of the State Board. “But that’s not where the conversation has been at all. It’s been about the issue of do we, or do we not, indoctrinate kids? Do we or do we not have freedom of expression?”
Liebich defended schools, but said the State Board will look into the Legislature’s concerns. Then, he drew the conversation back to more fundamental priorities: literacy, college and career pathways, and combating the negative impact of the pandemic.
“There’s no question that the pandemic has had an impact on student achievement and the social and emotional well-being of our kids,” Liebich said. “I think we as a board, and the entire system, is going to have to be focused to address those issues.”
Liebich sees education as key for Idaho’s economy
Little gave Liebich a seat on the State Board in late 2019, to replace former member Richard Westerberg, of Preston. Liebich is the former president and CEO of a Boise-area engineered wood company called RedBuilt.
“His extensive experience in education policy and business is a welcome addition to the body that governs Idaho’s public kindergarten through college education system,” Little said in a news release at the time.
Liebich didn’t grow up in Idaho’s schools. He was raised in upstate New York, where he started in public schools, then transferred to a private high school to play hockey. The sport carried him to Bowdoin College in Maine, where he earned a degree in economics. Afterward, he earned a master’s degree in general management from Harvard University.
Liebich moved west in 1994, to work at an engineered wood company called Trus Joist. He has four children, all of whom attended Riverstone International, a Boise private school. Liebich’s youngest is a sophomore this year, and his oldest is in a fifth-year master’s program at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University.
Despite his, and his children’s, private-school upbringing, Liebich started getting involved with public education about 20 years ago, through a family endeavor called Project Lead The Way, a STEM and project-based learning program that is in more than 12,000 schools and all 50 states. Liebich serves as the chairman of its board of directors.
“Before I even had kids, I was looking at (education) through a business, and competitiveness lens,” Liebich said. “If we didn’t have more kids going into the STEM disciplines, it’s going to be really tough for business to compete globally.”
In Idaho, Liebich got involved with the Lee Pesky Learning Center, which helps students with learning disabilities, Idaho Business for Education, the Riverstone board of directors and worked with K-12 and high education task forces convened by both Little and former Gov. Butch Otter.
Rod Gramer, President and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, called Liebich a “world class” leader.
“He’s smart, he’s personable, he’s thoughtful…and he’s very focused,” Gramer said. “Coming as a CEO of a company, he knows how important it is to set goals and achieve those goals. I think that’s one of the reasons he’s risen so fast on the State Board.”
One of Liebich’s first goals is to measure and understand the impact that the pandemic has had on youth and achievement gaps across the state. Long-term, he thinks Idaho’s top priority has to be getting more kids reading by the time they leave third grade.
“Having a strong public education system, I don’t want to sound cliché here, but it’s certainly the key to our economic future not only here in Idaho but nationally,” Liebich said. “More and more I’m feeling it’s sort of the key to our democracy.”
Lawmakers had a good shot at passing an all-day kindergarten proposal this year, which Liebich thinks would have made a “huge contribution” to the state’s literacy goals. But that proposal died when it lost momentum amid a Statehouse COVID-19 outbreak and the clamor of social justice and indoctrination debates.
Staring down an ‘attack’ on Idaho’s education systems
Liebich had only been on the State Board for a year when he agreed to take over as president. He replaces outgoing president Debbie Critchfield, who last week announced her candidacy for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“Kurt has my full faith and confidence,” Critchfield told EdNews. “He is a common-sense, clear-thinking person and his business clearly puts him in a position to look at things in a strategic way.”
Liebich wanted his voice in Idaho’s education debate, as the K-12 and higher education systems confront pandemic recovery and political turmoil.
“I’m really concerned about the attack that our education systems are under, both at the K-12 and higher ed levels, from voices that I’m not sure what their intentions are,” Liebich said. “It has the potential to be very damaging to Idaho’s education system.”
At the K-12 level, Liebich means allegations schools are “indoctrinating” youth with a focus on social justice and teaching critical race theory. Lawmakers concerned about these anecdotal claims held education budgets hostage this legislative session.
Liebich is concerned that “social justice” hasn’t been defined in the debate, and that critics lack hard data to back up indoctrination claims. The State Board needs to take a leadership role, Liebich said, to try and objectively measure concerns and make sure schools have clear policies around free speech. If the State Board finds evidence of indoctrination, Liebich said, it will act — but he has a hard time believing it’s a widespread issue.
“When we throw these umbrella terms around without defining them, then accuse the entire system of indoctrinating kids, that’s a pretty dangerous narrative,” Liebich said. “If the Idaho citizen believes that, because of that narrative, it will undermine the support for our public education system.”
At the higher education level, Liebich referenced uproar over the diversity and inclusion efforts at Idaho’s colleges and universities. In 2019, a coalition of Republican legislators sent Boise State University president Marlene Tromp a letter asking her to abandon diversity and inclusion efforts. This year, legislators cut university budgets to curb social justice spending.
“I’ve been a businessman my whole career. There isn’t one business that I know of that isn’t focused on inclusion,” Liebich said. “Businesses want to hire the most diverse, talented work force they can, then make sure they create a climate where employees feel included and like their voices matter.
“How can that be viewed as negative? I guess I don’t understand the argument,” Liebich said.
As board president, Liebich said he will work to understand lawmakers’ concerns, to address them, and to draw Idaho’s leaders back into consensus over the state’s education priorities.
“If we don’t have alignment with the Legislature on what’s important, and they don’t support it and fund it, we’re not going to get anything done,” he said.