Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

Launch grants: Game changer, or money pit?

As a native Idahoan, I can speak with some authority about the Gem State being a great place to live, raise a family and play.

Idaho is a wonderful place to retire, with relatively low crime rates. And, as some transplants have discovered, Idaho also is a great place to seek refuge from liberal politics. Just ask those in Eastern Oregon who are practically begging to become part of Idaho.

However, this state is not – and never has been – a place known for high wages or grand career opportunities outside of mining, logging and farming. For young men and women, Idaho is a great place – to put in their rearview mirrors as they drive out of the state heading for greener pastures.

Gov. Brad Little, with support from Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke and others, are trying to change those dynamics through the Launch program for high school seniors. Many of their fellow Republicans don’t like it (some call it outright socialism). But it is a way for giving young men and women a career path right here in Idaho, and making some parents and grandparents happy.

At the last count, more than 12,500 kids have applied for Launch grants – well over the 7,500 that were expected to apply. The grants cover up to $8,000 of the cost to enroll in an education or training program after high school. It’s a good deal, especially considering the rising costs of post-secondary education.

The governor is asking the Legislature for $75 million to cover the grant program. That’s a bargain by any measure.

In a pre-session news conference, Bedke – who has been to numerous schools to talk about the Launch program – told a story about his visit to an alternative school in Idaho Falls. Initially, he was greeted by at least a few yawns from the 78 students who listened to his presentation. But he saw the students collectively leaning in more as he talked about possible career paths.

Does it cover cosmetology? Diesel mechanics? Health care opportunities? Absolutely … and a whole lot more. “They saw a glimpse about how they could be more successful,” Bedke said.

And there’s evidence that this program can work in the real world, according to Rod Gramer, president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education.

“One of the things (Idahoans) take pride in is the quality of life, but as Cecil Andrus used to say, you can’t eat the scenery,” Gramer said. “We know that many kids don’t go to post-secondary because of finances. We also know that most jobs require some form of post-secondary education (and not necessarily a traditional four-year college or university). Launch creates a pathway for kids to pursue something in post-secondary.”

Ultimately, a high-demand career that can keep them in Idaho. “We need to have a trained, skilled and educated workforce if we are going to have a strong economy,” Gramer says. “We’re also dealing with a structural labor shortage, and not just in Idaho. If we can train and educate people, we will have the kind of workforce that we need to support our economy.”

Gramer says other states are catching on to the Launch concept, including Tennessee – which has had an even more aggressive program in place for several years. Every student who wants to attend a technical school receives a full scholarship.

All this was put together by a Republican governor and conservative legislature, Gramer says. “So, this is not a radical, or far-left Democratic idea.”

It’s certainly not a “socialist” idea, as some in Idaho will suggest. “I don’t get that,” Gramer says. “Is education socialism? The business community sees this as a way to find employees that we desperately need.”

Politically, there are reservations in the Legislature, and not just from those on the far right.

“Government handouts generally don’t work too well, and this is a big government handout,” said House Speaker Mike Moyle. “If (Launch is) done wrong, it will just be a money pit.”

He’s right about that – if the program has loose ends. But it’s the Legislature’s job to make sure it’s done right – and there is plenty of scrutiny and accountability along the way.

As Republicans like to boast, that’s a responsible way of doing business.

Chuck Malloy

Chuck Malloy

Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at [email protected].

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