Idaho ‘report card’ grade is suspect

A recent guest editorial by Scott Bedke, speaker of the Idaho House, tried to paint a more glowing portrait of Idaho schools than one commonly held by many Idahoans. He stated that Idaho does well, according to the “Report Card on American Education,” in which Idaho ranked No. 29, not at the bottom. It strikes me as unusual that anyone would seek to brag about being mired in the middle of the pack, since Idaho lacks large minority populations, impoverished urban areas, and other problems. Nonetheless, it is certainly better than being nearly dead last in what we invest in our children, a number that cannot be refuted.

I have great respect for Speaker Bedke, and consider him a friend. My intent is not to discredit him but to discuss where Idaho really stands in the education of our children. Mark Twain once warned about us about the use of dueling numbers to “prove” points when he quipped, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”

First, this “report card” does not come from an unbiased source, but instead from the conservative legislative think tank, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is a source of legislation and advocacy for its causes, most of which are slanted to their particular ideologies. The criteria include how stringent the state standards are, whether or not “school choice” is implemented, how easy it is to fire teachers, how many home school burdens exist, whether internet classes are required, and other ideological criteria, which may or may not be meaningful measures of how well children in ordinary classrooms learn. The research is certainly divided on many of these criteria.

Speaker Bedke boasts that ALEC considers Idaho sixth best in policy, which is understandable, since some of ALEC’s members and officers are Idaho legislators, and ALEC-modeled legislation is often passed in Idaho. The successful “guns on campus” bill is a recent example of this. But children don’t achieve based on some checklist of “standards” or “policies.” They learn because of parental support, well qualified, caring teachers, effective leadership, quality teacher training, adequate community support (financial and practical), and a culture that values learning.

Any argument about how Idaho children rank in relation to other states must also acknowledge a basic fact: every state uses different tests and different sets of standards to measure student progress. What is “proficient” in Utah, Oregon, or the District of Columbia may or may not be the same as in Idaho, since each one defines the term using differing measurements. The most common uniform national test, the NAEP, only tests a fraction of Idaho’s children and it shows Idaho’s progress to be stagnant. To use ACT test results is also in error, since many states do not use the ACT but instead the SAT test for college entrance. Even in Idaho, many districts relay on the SAT, not the ACT.

Besides, Idaho’s number would be even lower if most local Idaho school districts hadn’t passed override levies to keep the school doors open. Previous legislatures had cut those taxes, cynically letting the locals be the “bad guys.”

I do, however, thoroughly agree with Speaker Bedke in one point, we should support the bipartisan recommendations of the Governor’s Education Task Force, which I must point out, include those pesky ones that will require spending some real money. It’s always easy to want our children to get a “Cadillac” education, but not so easy when we only want to pay for a beat-up used Chevy. Frankly, the efforts of Idaho’s legislative leadership don’t seem to be focused on what will truly make our schools better.