Survey after survey and election after election, Idahoans tell us loud and clear that education is their top priority and a proper, even essential role of our state government. That’s reflected in my budget requests to the Idaho Legislature for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Idaho’s future prosperity depends on the responsible, targeted, data-driven and sustainable investments we make today in kindergarten through high school, in professional-technical training programs, and in our college and university system.
My K-through-Career budget recommendations for fiscal 2017 and new initiatives for implementing the recommendations of my Task Force for Improving Education represent comprehensive, strategic, long-term investments in the people of Idaho. The people’s mandate is clear – build a transparent and accountable public education system that produces talented and motivated citizens prepared to take on our 21st century challenges.
My budget recommendation for K-12 schools focuses on continued implementation of the 20 Task Force recommendations. That includes funding for the second year of the career ladder for Idaho teachers and $10.7 million in new funding to help kids struggling to read in kindergarten through third grade. Early intervention is essential to help students gain reading proficiency by the end of third grade because from then on, the focus of their education is on reading to learn.
We must ensure that those students who struggle with reading early on are not left behind for the rest of their educational journey. And since that journey should be a lifelong endeavor, I am asking legislators for $5 million so our schools can provide better college and career counseling to help students and parents explore opportunities beyond high school.
A focus on K-12 education alone will not be enough to move Idaho forward and ensure our economy stays strong and competitive. We should feel a sense of urgency – as our employers certainly do – to help more Idahoans pursue a postsecondary certificate or degree.
Despite an extensive public awareness campaign, Idaho’s “Go On” rate has been declining, from 56 percent to 52 percent over two years. And despite our recent focus on students finishing their college education, Idaho’s postsecondary completion rate edged down from 42 percent in 2012 to 40 percent in 2014.
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Idaho is one of 12 states where the young adults who soon will drive our economy are less educated than their parents. Unless we act now, Idaho could be producing the first generation to be less educated than the one before. That is not acceptable – not to parents, not to community leaders, not to businesses, not to me, and certainly not to our future.
The higher education initiatives I am proposing are focused on helping individuals get a college degree or professional-technical certification on which to base a career.
We know that the cost of attending college can be a significant barrier, so I am proposing to double the funding for our Opportunity Scholarship, a need- and merit-based award of up to $3,000 a year for four years. We had nearly 6,000 applicants last year and were able to award fewer than 2,000 scholarships to help recent high school graduates go on to one of our technical schools, colleges or universities.
My Tuition Lock proposal would provide a fixed rate of tuition for students at Idaho’s four-year higher education institutions. That would provide more predictability to students and families as well as an incentive for students to finish their degree program in four years. The cost to Idaho taxpayers will be a relatively modest $6 million to $8 million per year once the first freshman hit their senior year in the fall of 2019.
Approximately 28 percent of Idahoans have some college, but no degree. So I am asking the Legislature to establish a Completion Scholarship. It would help adults who have been out of postsecondary education for at least three years by providing up to $3,000 a year for four years as an incentive to come back and finish up that certificate or degree program.
The economic imperative is evident. On average, college graduates earn nearly twice as much as high school graduates. Meanwhile, right now there are more than 21,000 Idaho job openings that employers are unable to fill because applicants lack the necessary skills. That workforce gap figures to grow to 63,000 jobs by 2025 – and that could be a best-case scenario.
As Idaho citizens, we have a shared responsibility to ensure that those who succeed us are prepared for a smarter, more connected and competitive world. Please join me in helping the next generation of Idahoans become the architects of their own destiny and the builders of a brighter, more prosperous future.
Contact your legislators today and encourage them to keep investing in tomorrow.
This opinion piece was written by Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter.