Karen Gillette bundled up and held an orange sign that read “Our Schools! Our Solutions!” next to more than 50 other teachers, parents and school administrators on the steps of the state capitol the afternoon of Dec. 9. She didn’t care that it was 14 degrees outside. She came to the Idaho Education Association’s Day of Action rally to support her colleagues, her school district and public education in her state.
“Anytime we can show support for education, we do it,” Gillette said. She has been a teacher for 33 years. Today, she teaches special education in the Boise School District, but she said the legislature has changed its priorities over the years, and has seen a decline in education spending.
“We are 49th or 50th for per-pupil spending,” Gillette said. She said that has affected the kids, parents and the teachers. “We can’t go any further down.”
Penni Cyr, President of the Idaho Education Association—Idaho’s largest employee organization—stepped up to the podium on the capitol steps and confirmed Gillette’s statements: Idaho’s per pupil spending is the lowest in the nation.
“Class sizes are unwieldy and great, qualified teachers have left teaching,” Cyr said. Her comments provoked cheers from the crowd. She encouraged her audience to reach out to their legislators and urge them to pass recommendations from a task force that the governor put together.
A year ago, Governor “Butch” Otter mandated a 31-person bipartisan Task Force to Improve Education in Idaho. Its main goal is for 60 percent of Idahoans between 25 and 34 years old to get a postsecondary degree by 2020. Right now, it’s only 39 percent.
In September 2013, the task force released 20 recommendations to help make that happen, including literacy proficiency, advanced opportunities, revamping the state’s accountability structure involving schools, encouraging autonomy among schools, annual strategic planning, assessment and continuous focus on improvement, high speed bandwidth and wireless infrastructure, educator and student technology devices, restoration of operational funding to the 2009 fiscal year level, ongoing job training and more.
The democratic caucus already endorsed four bills in support of the recommendations last week, but the legislative session doesn’t begin until Monday, Jan. 6.
Idaho State Representative Hy Kloc spoke at the Day of Action as well. He identified himself as a “rare animal in the statehouse: a democrat.” That got a cheer out of the crowd.
He told Boise Weekly he isn’t sure how well the bills will do once the session begins.
“If I were in the majority party, I might have a better idea,” Kloc said. But he said this task force is a perfect example of how people from both sides of the aisle can come together and work on these issues.
Mike Lanza spoke last at the event. He was on the Governor’s Task Force for Improving Education, a parent and the co-founder of Idaho Parents and Teachers Together.
“Our public education is like a vehicle that has gone without maintenance for two years,” Lanza said. “We thought we were saving money, but it became a pay-later situation.
He also addressed Idaho as the last state in the country for pupil spending, in a way that really riled up the crowd.
“Montana spends 54 percent more on per pupil spending than Idaho,” he said. “Wyoming, 134 percent.” He warned that Idaho could become the “Mississippi of the 21st Century.”
Lanza told the shivering crowd that his fear is that the legislature will only pass one or two of the recommendations.
“That will get us to the way it was six years ago,” Lanza said. “Now can someone please explain to me, how is that a step forward?”
Lanza told BW that the recommendations will cost $350 million. For a complete list of the task force’s recommendations, read their report here.