What we need to do to improve education:
- The problem is mainly infrastructure.
- We need to get onto the same team. We won’t solve things by calling names; we solve things by working together.
- It’s going to cost money! We can’t improve schools unless we are willing to pay for it. So far, we don’t seem willing. A poll conducted in Sept. 2012 by Gallop and PDK, a nonpartisan educational research group, concluded that 65 percent of Americans would support increasing taxes to pay to improve struggling schools. The simple fact is that Idaho doesn’t fund its schools appropriately. Sure, there are lots of reasons, but 50th in the nation is good reason to be ashamed. Every person in this room should think about that.
- This isn’t some hidden mystery. We already know what will improve schools; it’s simply a matter of doing it. Otherwise, we are probably all wasting our time here.
In 1963 or so, my father, Gov. Robert E. Smylie, loaded up my brother and me into the family station wagon, and we went on a tour of Idaho. He called it “lights on for Idaho education.” In the wake of the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the perception was that America’s schools were failing and falling behind the Russians. We listened to parents in town after town, and they said the same thing that my parents felt. They cared about their kids, and wanted Idaho’s schools to be second to none. Well, 50 years later and now our schools are second to last.
In 1965, Dad shocked Idaho when he proposed real and meaningful reforms. He consolidated districts that had grown too small, and passed a sales tax with the sole purpose of improving education. “Save our Schools” was the effective motto, and the voters of Idaho approved the tax. He advocated a progressive system in which professionals set their own standards and worried less about political affiliation than they did about teaching children. But what has happened? Almost immediately, we placed dozens of exemptions on the tax, and raided it for other things, all of them
worthy at the time, no doubt. Then over the years cut other taxes, the most recent is the personal property tax, which will be lowered over time, but no one seems to know where all the money will come from to pay the bills. In 2006, the legislature also lowered property taxes, but replaced these lost revenues with a penny increase that left Idaho schools $50 or $60 million short every year. So every year, the state falls further behind, and we have the nerve to blame it on our children. The blame should rest squarely on us, ladies and gentlemen. The money once guaranteed schools is
now building prisons and giving tax refunds to whomever lobbies best in the legislature. And education has become a partisan debate. What, do we think that there is a republican or democrat way to teach a child?
The result is a system that cannot support itself. So bad is the state effort, in the years since the economic downturn, over 80 local districts have been forced to pass override levees, since the state can’t or won’t fund the necessary functions. Mr. Chairman, the sad truth is that we are back to the days before 1965, and maybe worse!
The infrastructure issue is easy to see. We have 115 traditional school districts. But now in order to give choices, we have created over 40 charter schools in addition, plus online, and home school options. That’s a good thing, but we don’t have the money to adequately support the ones we have, much less a dozen or so new ones each and every year. Now, the charter and traditional schools are being forced to scrap like dogs over the every shrinking money that the state provides. Everyone loses.
Is this what we want? A double system in which the wealthy, politically connected, and the elite have one system of schools with many choices, while everyone else gets stuck with whatever is left?
No, what the people of Idaho want is a system of schools that use the latest educational advances to teach their children in a neighborhood school that is safe, caring, and staffed by excellently prepared professionals who provide what is best for our most precious resource, our children.
The recent actions by the Idaho legislature to attack the teacher unions were unwise and divisive. I find it quite ironic, that the very people who will be leading the new efforts to reform are being disrespected, seeing their pay cut and their voices diminished. But yet, they are supposed to increase test scores and work all the harder, doing miracles, no doubt with less money, and more pressures. Gosh, no wonder they feel discouraged.
It’s simple, really; you get what you pay for. You can’t improve schools by cutting their budgets, laying off hundreds of teachers, cutting out training and preparation time, and not spending to keep the physical plants operating safely.
Research is clear; this is how you improve schools:
- Get the parents more involved. Not just the special interest groups that pack meetings with a single agenda, but all parents, including those who have to work two or three minimum wage jobs just to survive.
- Make sure that teachers teach subjects that they are fully qualified to teach. For example, hundreds of Idaho math teachers don’t have a math major degree in education. But instead of raising standards, Idaho has made it easier to people who have no educational credentials to teach.
- Provide leadership. Effective principals make for effective schools. Effective teachers have higher achieving students.
- Work together. Start by listening to teachers and parents. They tried to warm you that the education reform laws were a bad idea, but no one was apparently listening.
- Instead of running commercials lambasting the efforts of our children, do something about it. Our young people aren’t ”falling behind” or failing to complete college because they are too stupid, they quit because those colleges keep raising tuition, cutting scholarships and making it harder make ends meet. If the various interests REALLY want to help, maybe they should double or triple the scholarships available. If the State Board really wanted relieve the situation, they should order the colleges and universities to LOWER tuition, not raise it by 10 percent every year. If you want Idaho kids to “go on” give them the money they need to do it instead of forcing them to finish school thousands of dollars in debt. Indeed, it would be funny if they were so incredibly cruel to our young people. You get what you pay for; Idaho has cut what it spends on higher education over the years. Now it whines that the results aren’t pretty.
- Finally, let’s own the problem. Hunting scapegoats to place the blame isn’t going to make the schools any better. We care, or we wouldn’t be here tonight. So rather than trying to find the magic bullet, how about finding a source of funding and go about doing what is already proven to improve schools, instead of hatching new jingles. A little less ideology and a lot more work is what we need.