Resolve to have more honest government in 2019

Idaho has a new report card for its public schools. But don’t call it a report card. Except for those times when it is. And that’s hardly ever, but not exactly never.

To explain: Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra’s office announced that it has a new online K-12 report card. That seems simple enough. In the one-page press release that describes this innovation of public school accountability, the department uses the phrase “report card” 14 times.

The state Department of Education’s Director of Assessment and Accountability Karlynn Laraway hailed the agency’s website as a tool for parents to understand the state’s “new accountability system.” (“Accountability” is used half a dozen times in the release).

But in the same press release, the state Department of Education says it won’t call its new report card website a report card: “The home page for the new site is not labeled ‘report card,’ in part to convey that the SDE is not grading the state’s schools and districts,” Laraway said. Instead, the site is called the “Idaho School Finder.”

So much for accountability. If you’re looking for Idaho’s report card on its government-run school system, and you arrive at the website idahoschools.org, you may or may not know that you have found what you’re looking for. It’s emphatically a report card. But it’s also emphatically not.

The result is confusion, allowing bureaucracies and education special interests (euphemistically referred to as “education stakeholder groups”) to win because parents and students are oblivious to reality.

Instead of providing a straight dope report card — stats and whatnot labeled as such that might allow parents to make informed choices as to whether they should enroll or entertain other education options — the department’s new website more or less purports to help parents “find” schools nearest the input address, much the way your phone’s GPS can help you navigate to the nearest burger joint. At least my GPS app includes reviews and a crowdsourced star rating.

The department’s difficulty with providing a direct representation of reality — hereinafter known in layman’s terms as “truth” — shouldn’t be surprising and yet it still manages to amaze. As I have previously observed, the department has gotten to be super competent at using euphemisms to describe the system’s least effective schools and poorest performing students. Schools that fail are labeled “underperforming.” Kids who can’t read are “below basic.” Whatever that means.

Parents could use a lot less coddling when it comes to the performance of the public education system. And the government, in general, should be honest and direct about the success or failure of the programs it is charged with administering.

In previous commentaries this time of year, I’ve used this space to announce my new year’s resolutions. For example, I have in the past committed to solve problems aside unusual partners with common interests and bringing more civility to this space. I also pledged to reduce the size of the unread email in my inbox, which I can report has decreased from more than 70,000 messages to about 46,000. This is progress.

This year, my resolution is to help government bureaucracy, the media, and special interest actors step up to the transparency plate. People don’t need or want a marketing campaign to inform them of how awesome the government is. All they want is the unvarnished truth, Joe Friday style. Let’s all resolve to give clarity — just the facts — and have 2019 be a year in which transparency and accountability prevail over the protective instincts of the established forces that seek to hide truth from us.

Written by Wayne Hoffman, the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. 

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