After Idaho voters’ 2012 rejection of the “Students Come First” laws and amid continued calls from education professionals and business leaders for improvements to our public school system, it became clear that the stakes were too high and the need for reform too great not to try something different.
So I called on the State Board of education to facilitate a discussion aimed at identifying and then advancing the best practices around Idaho, America and the world. As a result, a broad cross-section of education groups representing teachers, administrators and school boards brought their best and brightest into the collaborative process.
The charge was to create a vision for Idaho schools that would not be bound by politics, cost estimates or the old way of doing business. I essentially told the group, “You tell us where the path to excellence lies and I will help build the road to get us there.”
My Education Task Force embraced the State Board of Education goal of ensuring that at least 60 percent of Idahoans ages 25-34 have some form of post-secondary credential by the year 2020. That ambitious goal seeks to stimulate greatness in high school students, drive economic prosperity, address remedial needs in our colleges and universities, and foster a seamless and high-level system of post-secondary education and training that we now call K-Career.
The Task Force did its work with professionalism and integrity, achieving broad-based, bipartisan consensus. It produced 20 specific recommendations that together form a road map to achieving our goals as well as clearly identifying the obstacles standing in our way.
The work produced by my Education Task Force addressed – in a detailed and methodical fashion – a sustainable five-year plan to address such challenges as:
- Enhancing teacher compensation
- Restoring operational funding
- Creating a career ladder for compensation to elevate starting teachers’ annual base salaries from $31,000 to $40,000 within the next five years
- Providing ongoing professional growth opportunities tied to a modern licensure system for teachers
- Investing in classroom technology
- Expanding dedicated broadband Internet access
- Achieving literacy proficiency in third grade
- Exploring the feasibility of a mastery-based system that enables students to achieve at their own speed
- Providing incentives for teachers to maintain or improve to levels of excellence by adding more mentoring time
- Providing more opportunities for collaboration and in-service training
This vision captured a critical mass of thought, led by educators, and soon spread as the basic framework of every conversation about education in Idaho.
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For the past eight months the State Board of Education has been tasked with adding to the Task Force’s framework. Last winter the Legislature approved my request to appropriate $35 million more in operational funding as a significant down payment toward meeting the needs of school districts, more money for technology, increased emphasis on advanced opportunities, and more time for classroom teachers to collaborate.
The vision now is coming into sharper focus with Task Force committees working to fine-tune recommendations on school autonomy and local accountability, literacy, career ladder and tiered licensure.
I intend to see this vision through to fruition, just as Idaho’s educators and business leaders have done their part by shepherding these ideas from their infancy to implementable strategies.
The Task Force established a fiscal stability group that studied those issues related to fairness and the bond levy question. What they recommended includes not only increased focus on certainty in the State budget from year to year, but also such efforts as restoration of operating funds and implementing the career ladder – which will enable rural districts more opportunity to keep their best teachers.
Simply put, my school improvement plan is Idaho’s plan. It’s our plan. It was designed by educators, for educators. Its goal is to remove the politics and angst from the conversation and get to the heart of what is right for Idaho students, teachers, and our communities large and small. It will require all of us to ensure it succeeds.
Butch Otter is Idaho’s governor.