Idaho education reform is now in doubt

Elections matter, even those with small voter turnout. While the primary elections on May 20 garnered only about a quarter of registered voters, the day’s results will likely have a big impact on education in Idaho, especially as it relates to the work of Gov. Otter’s task force.

The task force, of which I am a member, lost a real education champion with the unexpected defeat of Sen. John Goedde, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. I was fortunate enough to work with Sen. Goedde over the past three years on various education committees. While initially a formidable presence, he proved to be open to ideas, was extremely well informed about issues, and was well-regarded not only in Idaho but on the national stage. As a charter school operator and advocate, I knew that Sen. Goedde would listen to my ideas and the concerns of the charter school community, but he also provided a lens for the wider view of trying to do the right thing for all students in Idaho.

It is important to note that the education reforms proposed by the governor’s task force in September 2013 are not just incremental. They are transformative.

When I was first asked to join the task force I was concerned — as were others — that after the demise of the Students Come First effort we were serving as little more than window dressing. However, adoption of a mastery-based system, a new funding model, tiered licensure and restoration of operational funding are pretty big ideas for our state. Personally, my initial skepticism changed to enthusiasm as we wrestled with complex ideas and found a way to unanimously support the recommendations.

Currently, the task force is working to find ways to implement and write into law key ideas and recommendations. This work has been made more difficult with the loss of Sen. Goedde. His insights, abilities and leadership in getting things done will be greatly missed.

But the loss of Sen. Goedde isn’t the only big change facing the work of the task force, and education reform efforts in Idaho. The Republican nominee for state superintendent, Sherri Ybarra, is an unknown to most Idahoans. Her election platform of saying very little about the issues facing the task force was a winner in a low turnout closed primary, but it is less likely a winning strategy for the general election. Ybarra’s opponent, Jana Jones, has been involved in a statewide campaign, is well-supported, and is a tough campaigner. While both candidates have experience in education, neither have shown much excitement or encouragement for the work of the task force.

Why is this important? Like it or not, most of the innovative ideas and push for school reform and improvement in Idaho education have come from the superintendent’s office over the past eight years.  As a result, Superintendent Tom Luna is one of most divisive figures in state politics in recent years, which might explain why he chose not to run again. His experienced and highly qualified team are moving on to other endeavors, leaving a significant vacuum at the State Department of Education that will likely be filled by stakeholders with their different ideas and agendas to those of the task force.

Where will educational leadership and a willingness to push for meaningful reform come from over the next four years? Will we be surprised by the new superintendent and her team? Will legislators step up to the task and take a bigger role? Will the governor’s office provide more direction and urgency? My hope is that our task force efforts do not become just another failed initiative but can transcend the politics of the moment.

 

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