Idaho House Rep. Sally Toone (D-Gooding) is worried about the fate of public education in America, particularly in Idaho. She spent 37 years as an educator and though she's now a freshman legislator, she has the conviction of a veteran lawmaker. Toone is passionate about a multitude of issues—but she leans in with urgency when talking about K-12 education.
"My family farms and ranches land in Camas and Gooding counties. We have a herd of about 25 in our beef operation," she said. "I'm engaged on the issues of agriculture, water, private property and public lands, but education was the driving force of my decision to run for office."
When former Rep. Donna Pence retired from the Idaho House after serving Legislative District No. 26 for 12 years, she urged Toone to run for her seat. In a district which covers four counties, Toone handily defeated her Republican challenger in one of the few moments of optimism for Idaho Democrats in 2016, who saw a net loss of four seats in the legislature.
Your legislative district runs the gamut of the political and cultural spectrum.
The district is purple. We've got Blaine County where tourism is key, the prairie of Camas County, down to the south and the desert of Lincoln County and Gooding County where we've ranched for decades and I taught high school for many years.
How did you win so convincingly in a year when Democrats struggled?
I think I fit our district's need of the time. I campaigned as an independent, and in my district, it's less about D's and R's.
Let's dive into the debate over public education. Can you speak to the change in the wind at a national level, particularly the recent confirmation of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?
The bedrock of the United States is equal opportunity for public education, but DeVos never attended a public school—neither have her children.
She undoubtedly waves the banner for charter schools.
Charter schools were developed to be unique, as an alternative. And now charter schools want more funding? Whoa. They knew what the rules were when they wrote their charters, and they knew what the funding formula would look like.
Let's talk about the gap between the haves and have-nots of public education in Idaho, and the new normal of school districts depending on supplemental levies or bonds.
In 2006, when then-Governor Jim Risch shifted the way we fund public schools, we had a few dozen supplementals across the state. We quickly skyrocketed to something like 95 districts needing supplemental funding. Then the recession kicked in. Right now, we fund education on a formula that practically requires a supplemental levy.
And in the meantime, the legislature fell asleep at the wheel to recognize that gap.
A couple of years ago, the legislature was so proud about returning to the 2009 funding levels. Excuse me? We've added something like 18,000 more students into the school systems since then.
Tell me about your proposal to grant some student loan forgiveness to teachers in rural Idaho.
It's something I worked on with Rep. Paulette Jordan (D-Plummer). We're proposing student loan forgiveness, up to $3,000 per year, if you're a teacher in a district that would be considered in rural isolation, or if that district has an economic disadvantage or if there's low student achievement. Our rural schools are really struggling with core classes. College debt for those teachers is a major issue, and we need some incentive.
What's the price tag for something like this?
That's the next step. We're having a lot of conversations about it, and the State Board will have to determine how many grants to give out each year. Right now, we've got a lot of interest.
What have you been told about being a freshman in the legislature?
Listen and learn. There's definitely a learning curve. You're never too old to learn, and everybody has to start somewhere.