Only a few hours after what Idaho lawmakers called a “purely informational” House Education Committtee meeting on Tuesday to examine voters' rejection of the Luna Laws, that committee's chairman faced the public at a panel discussion sponsored by Boise State Public Radio.
Joining Boise Republican Rep. Reed DeMordaunt to discuss the future of education in the Gem State were Brian Cronin, former Democratic legislator and past Education Committee member, and Dr. Jennifer Snow, professor of education at Boise State.
In front of a packed house at Salt Tears Coffeehouse and Noshery on State Street, the experts took questions from moderators and audience members about possible future changes to public education following the Luna Laws’ failure.
“All we want to do ... is create a conversation about the current state of education reform in Idaho,” said Scott Graf, Morning Edition host and senior editor at Boise State Public Radio. “We want to ask the question, what will education reform look like in Idaho now, going forward?”
Preceding panelist statements about the current state of Idaho education, the crowd was asked to grade the school system as it currently stands. A few hands went up for a “D” grade, but the majority was comprised of “C's.”
“I’ve had the opportunity to live and work around the world,” DeMordaunt said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in countries that are competing with us very heavily. The statistics are a bit sobering, to be honest, on where we rank vis-a-vis the rest of the world.”
DeMordaunt continued to cite statistics derived from international ranking systems such as Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), but was countered by Cronin, who warned of the inaccuracies, flaws and impracticality of such tests. All panelists agreed, however, that it is necessary to raise the bar in Idaho to keep Gem State students competitive in an increasingly international market.
“It isn’t ‘eat your vegetables because there’s a kid in China who wants them’ anymore,” said Cronin. “It’s ‘do your homework because there’s a kid in China that wants your job.’”
Later questions centered on funding for public education in Idaho, currently nearly the lowest in the nation.
“We’re at a point now where we’ve hit a bottom or a floor. We’re 49th in the nation,” said Cronin, suggesting that continually reducing funding sends a message to students that Idahoans don’t value their education. However, while all three panelists agreed that funding for Idaho education is too low, none had a solution to offer.
“It’s time to have a conversation about what is adequate funding,” said Snow. “Let’s think about effective teaching. What is it, how do we support it, and how do we do so economically?”
Snow went on to address the results of a recent survey that revealed teachers find the climate for their field to be one of despair in Idaho.
“I would say that teachers don’t feel a lot of value in what they’re doing,” she said. “We work very hard every day, and rather than being compensated more, we have more students. I don’t think those decisions were made in the best interest of students. I think they were made based on fiscal need. I think all teachers want the very best for their students. They want them all to succeed and they want the resources to do so.”
Ed Keener, a College of Idaho graduate and former teacher, was the first community member to step up to the microphone, saying that following his graduation in 1967, he moved to Alaska to teach because Idaho’s teaching salaries were too low. He warned that the same is happening now.
“Teachers are leaving Idaho,” he said. “Let us restore public education funding. Let us pay for quality teachers, in adequate numbers, to educate all of our children.”
Ultimately, the panel received a lot of community feedback, but offered few insights or solutions for an educational system most agreed is broken to some degree.
“What we need first is to agree on what the problem is,” Cronin said. “One of the issues with Students Come First is we were trying to solve a million different things with no evidence that there ever was a problem.”
He also stressed focusing on outcomes rather than issues.
“We’re probably going to arrive at a consensus of getting 60 percent of our students to go on to post-secondary education,” he said. “I think that’s a vision that has no partisan taint whatsoever.”
The event attracted a high enough turnout that admission was capped when even standing room became scarce. Despite a line of community members still waiting to ask questions or share their comments, the panel adjourned nearly 20 minutes past its scheduled end time.
Education and pending reform is a topic that people are "very excited about,” said Adam Cotterell, education reporter for Boise State Public Radio. “I think, most importantly, education reform will be with teachers, learning things, trying new things in their classrooms and making lives better for our students.”