You've seen the "Don't Fail Idaho" ad, I'm willing to bet on it. I'm speaking to the television watchers here: It's that innocuously animated thing--reminds me of the old '50s films on dental hygiene or the food pyramid--that in less than two minutes alerts Idahoans we are about to drop off the tailgate of the civilization wagon because of the miserable job our state's education system is doing for our youngsters. And it's on the air a lot. I wish there were a way a simple little common folker like myself could know exactly how many times in any given day (or week, or month) an ad like that was being broadcast, or on how many television stations, but my guess is there is hardly a minute goes by when that ad is not running on some Idaho (or Spokane) television station. Lots and lots of airtime.
For those of you who don't watch television, you can go to the website dontfailidaho.org and see it. It's a big, busy site. Lots of graphics and lots of tabs to click for lots and lots of information about how Idaho students are the last in the nation in this category or that category. You will also learn that the nation itself ranks in the toilet zone in such fundamentals as math and science and reading, as compared to most of the other industrialized countries. Taken together. It would place Idaho students at the very back of the very last bus in line for the future.
Lots and lots of scary.
What you won't find in the ad are any definitive steps we can take to correct this dreadful situation. You get preached to a lot--e.g., "Let's work together, invest in our potential, move from the bottom to the top."
You get the same sort of hot-air pumpery we'd expect to hear from any head coach at any pep rally in any dumpy little school anywhere in America--e.g., "Let's unleash some of that same independent spirit and trail-blazing vision that made Idaho great."
You get vague and essentially meaningless suggestions on how to go about making it all better--e.g., "Let's re-imagine education and do something truly revolutionary."
But the narration never gets around to saying what exactly that revolutionary thing we should be re-imagining is. Or what our great, independent, Idaho trail-blazing vision should be envisioning, exactly. Or where we can go to work together; or how much money we should bring to make those investments in all that potential we are led to believe is out there; or how any of this is going to get Idaho on top of something it is currently on the bottom of.
In other words, the ad represents lots and lots of money being spent to promote something it never gets around to spelling out.
So who is spending this money? And what are they trying to sell us this time?
The "who" is relatively easy, though you have to have a sharp eye to catch it in both the ad and the website. Down at the bottom--way, way down at the bottom, and in a print size we would normally associate with lawyers and used-car dealers--are the words "Sponsored by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation." You remember that bunch, I'm sure. Or has the whole Tom Luna/Frank VanderSloot/Idaho Legislature/Albertson Foundation effort to jam the "Students Come First" mush down the gullets of Idaho citizens slipped your mind?
But as to the "what" they are selling, that is less clear. On the website, there is a great deal of implication that the future of education lies in technology. But most parents know already how vital Internet access has become in the education of their young 'uns. That technology has transformed education is hardly news. And other tabs on that website--the ones with titles like "Idaho Needs You" and "Vision, Leadership Needed" makes the whole thing sound like: if you and I don't go along with something here, whatever the hell it is, we might as well sell our kids off to the scrap human yard because they ain't got a snowball's chance anyhows.
There's even a list of countries that are kicking America's ass at producing superiorly-educated students. Oddly enough, there is no information that details what those other countries are doing to educate their students so much better. Nor is there information detailing what all those states above Idaho on the totem pole are doing that keeps them from being at the bottom instead of us.
And oddest of all, there is no mention whatsoever of the huge financial investments that key members of the Albertson Foundation had made previously in private education interests that were poised like hungry hyenas, eager to swoop into Idaho and pick clean the bones of the public education system, had only Luna's "Students Come First" scheme not been rejected--and quite soundly, if you recall--by Idaho voters once they knew what was happening.
Well, Idaho voters, I suspect it is happening again. And by some of the same hyenas. Tom Luna has announced he's leaving elected office--what a shame he's not sticking around for another election--but the people in the murky background are still with us.
There is more to talk about here than one column would allow, so I'm reviving the "Crumbling Foundations" series I began back in the winter of 2011. If things go as planned, next week we'll examine exactly how well those for-profit alternatives to public education stack up, and the week after. Let's take a look at the real reasons Idaho is a lousy place to have school-age children.