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Local lawmakers, teachers, business figures on new education task force

By NATHAN BROWN nbrown@postregister.comMay 17, 2019

Three eastern Idaho lawmakers, a lawyer for Melaleuca, an Idaho National Laboratory deputy director and an American Falls teacher have been named to the task force that will help shape the direction of education in Idaho for the next five years.

Gov. Brad Little announced the creation and membership of the “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” task force Wednesday. The group of teachers, administrators, lawmakers and other education stakeholders is tasked with setting the state’s kindergarten-through-12th-grade public education priorities for the next five years and reviewing the K-12 budget to align spending with these priorities, according to a news release from Little’s office.

“I hope we start with a really good look at the data,” said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, who is on the task force. “Where are we, and how are our students doing?”

The overall goal will be “improving student achievement, identifying a framework to successfully measure student success, recruit and retain teachers, and others,” according to Little’s news release.

“The ‘Our Kids, Idaho’s Future’ Task Force will adopt a broad-based, collaborative process to examine our public education system, with an emphasis on improving student achievement and accountability to parents and taxpayers,” Little said in a statement.

Six Republican and two Democratic lawmakers are part of the group, including all three lawmakers from Bonneville County’s District 30 — Sen. Dean Mortimer, and Reps. Horman and Gary Marshall, all R-Idaho Falls. Mortimer is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, while Horman, a former Bonneville Joint School District 93 trustee, is vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. Marshall, the only freshman lawmaker in the group, is a retired educator who has worked at both public schools and Brigham Young University-Idaho.

“I think what I’ll bring to the task force is broad experience, particularly in the area of (the) teacher pipeline,” Marshall said. “At BYU-Idaho, I was always involved in the teacher education part, and so I understand what it’s like to be at a university trying to prepare teachers and the interactions between universities and the state Department of Education, for instance.”

Marshall also said he would be interested in any curriculum-related discussions, although he didn’t know if the task force would be addressing the topic.

“I’m grateful the governor was willing to let me be a part of the task force, and I’m anxious to get to work with the others and see what we can accomplish,” he said.

The task force includes six people from the business world, including Juan Alvarez, the deputy director for management and operations at INL, and Katherine Hart, associate general counsel for Melaleuca. And there are 12 teachers, administrators and other education stakeholders, including Mark Beitia, an agriculture teacher at American Falls High School and 2019 Idaho Teacher of the Year.

While the task force will discuss school finances more generally, Little doesn’t plan to ask it to develop recommendations regarding the state’s school funding formula, according to Idaho Education News. Lawmakers have been discussing updating the formula for the past several years, and this was expected to be one of the biggest issues of the session when lawmakers convened in January. However, no bills to make the changes were introduced until March, and none of them got further than a committee hearing. Horman said she expects some overlap between funding formula discussions and the task force’s work, but she doesn’t expect to see any funding formula-related proposals to come out of their work.

“The governor was pretty clear during the session that’s a legislative issue, and it’s up to us to resolve,” she said.

The task force, which Little announced he intended to create in his “State of the State” address in January, is similar in concept to the education task force former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter created in 2013, looking for a path to improve Idaho’s schools after deep spending cuts during the recession. That task force’s recommendations have played a major role in driving state education policy since 2014, including expanding early childhood literacy, dual credit programs and the five-year “career ladder” plan to raise teacher pay. The state is in the last year of that plan now.

Some of Little’s education initiatives in his first year in office, such as doubling early childhood literacy funding and boosting starting teachers’ pay to $40,000 a year over the next two years, have been building on the earlier task force’s ideas.

“It’s important to build on the progress this state has made in helping Idaho students succeed in school and beyond, and set ambitious goals for the next five years,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said in a statement. “Gov. Little has assembled a diverse group of individuals who share a strong commitment to education. I’m honored to be part of it.”

Lawmakers have been raising education spending by about 6 or 7 percent a year since 2015, and last year the state caught up to pre-recession levels. However, many of the challenges the earlier task force identified are ones the new one will grapple with as well. While teacher pay, for example, has gone up, it is still lower than most states, and the career ladder has been criticized for not doing enough to take care of teachers who are more advanced in their careers and entice them to stay in Idaho rather than leave for higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

“The time is now to approach teacher retention with a sense of urgency and take action that will enable us to keep our most experienced teachers in the profession and in Idaho classrooms,” Idaho Education Association President Kari Overall, who will be on the task force, wrote in an op-ed earlier this week. “We look forward to working with elected officials and other education stakeholders to expand the recent investments in public education beyond early career educators.”

Marshall said he has heard similar complaints about the current structure.

“There is a concern about funding for seasoned career teachers,” he said. “And we’ve done a pretty good job of trying to get starting salaries up, but there’s obviously going to be work that needs to be done in the whole issue of attracting and retaining teachers.”

Horman said issues she thinks are significant include looking at the state’s teacher pipeline, education budgets and fiscal stability and creating an accountability system.

“I think we do need to have a robust discussion around accountability, and we need the data that undergirds that,” she said. “It really needs to start with the data on where we are.”

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