Four trends push an opportunity to change education in Idaho

Four major trends in education and innovation impact the state’s 320,000 public school students. These trends will also likely drive the state’s conversation and debates in coming years. These trends, and what they mean for Idaho and its children, should be front in center of the minds of lawmakers as they redesign Idaho’s school funding system.

First, “demographics is destiny.” Idaho’s population is changing and changing faster than most of us realize. Population and household projections from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that Idaho’s school age population is becoming increasingly urban, more racially diverse, and increasingly from lower income households (see here and here). Between 2000 and 2014, the state’s Hispanic population grew by 93 percent, while the state’s overall population grew by only 26 percent. In some Idaho counties, the Hispanic population is rapidly becoming the majority population. In Clark County, for example, 70 percent of citizens 50 and older are white, while 70 percent of those between 20 and 34 are Hispanic. Additionally, more Idaho children live in poverty. In 2008, 16 percent of the state’s children lived in families below the poverty line. That percentage had grown to 19 percent by 2014, a dramatic and significant new reality for Idaho’s educators (see here).

Second, there is a growing premium for top-flight educators, both classroom teachers as well as administrators. Idaho policy makers have responded to this by creating a career ladder that reportedly seeks to improve pay for top performers. Yet, a growing number of schools and districts – especially those in rural remote communities – continue to struggle to recruit and retain top educators. This is compounded by an acute shortage of teachers in the STEM subjects, teachers who are bilingual and those with special education certification. Traditional schools of education are trying to ramp up their efforts to meet these challenges, while alternative talent providers like Teach for America are stepping up to fill gaps in Treasure Valley area schools. The Idaho New School Fellowship, launched just this year, recruits, empowers and supports top school leaders in launching new schools in high-need communities. Despite such efforts, supply for education talent is being steadily outpaced by demand.

Third, Idaho parents like and want more school choice options. A 2016 survey Idaho Ready for Change reported, “73 percent of parents said they would prefer that their child attend a private or charter school, while only 26 percent would opt for a traditional district school.” Similarly, 84 percent of Hispanic parents nationally support allowing parents to choose what public school they send their child to (see here). More than a quarter of the state’s 320,000-plus K-12 students already attend a school of choice instead of their traditional neighborhood public school. A growing number of course choices, dual-credit opportunities and other alternative learning options that go well beyond the traditional offerings of brick-and-mortar classrooms are also adding to the list of school options available to Idaho students and their families.

Fourth, technology is changing instruction and learning fast. Idaho was a leader in embracing virtual charter schools in the early 2000s, and there are still close to 5,000 Idaho students enrolled in one of the state’s seven virtual schools. There are thousands more supplementing their classroom-based learning through courses provided by the Idaho Digital Learning Academy and the Khan Academy – a nonprofit with the moniker “a free, world class education for anyone, anywhere” that features more than 6,500 free videos and advertises more than 100,000 interactive lessons on various subjects. Further, there is increasingly a blurring of lines between online virtual learning and school-based instruction. Innovative public charter schools and school districts are launching blended learning models that provide the 24-7 access to content of virtual schools, but is backed by in-person site-based teacher support that many students need to excel academically. Gem Innovation Schools in Nampa and Pocatello are charter school leader in this space, while the Wilder School District is moving towards a blended learning approach for all of its 440 K-12 students. The era of stand and deliver instruction is quickly becoming a thing of the past in Idaho.

Idaho’s lawmakers understand Idaho’s education system needs change. Let’s start with school funding. The state’s current funding formula goes back to 1994, and according to the Education Commission of the States, “the current formula did not contemplate a variety of different learning modalities, the increasing mobility of students and the states move toward mastery-based education.” Nor did it contemplate a system that embraces universal school choice. Thankfully, there is an emerging consensus among state leaders that the time is right for Idaho to craft a new funding system. State lawmakers convened a “School Funding Work Group” committed to finding “a funding framework that better meets the needs of a system that is changing.” House Concurrent Resolution No. 33 authorized “the Legislative Council to appoint a Committee to Undertake and Complete a Study of the Public School Funding Formula and Make Recommendations.”

All Idaho students deserve an education that prepares them for successfully navigating life’s challenges and opportunities. Now is the time to focus on the trends shaping education in Idaho, and a great place to start in managing these is building a funding system that will make it more likely our children get the education they deserve.

Terry Ryan is CEO of the Boise-based nonprofit education group Bluum.