Businesses: Idaho education politics are hurting state

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FILE – A woman walks across the University of Idaho campus during a snowstorm of the season on Oct. 23, 2020, in Moscow, Idaho. Political hostility to public education in the Republican-dominated Idaho Legislature is causing some businesses to doubt the wisdom of moving to or expanding in the state. (Geoff Crimmins/The Moscow-Pullman Daily News via AP, File)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Political hostility to public education in the Republican-dominated Idaho Legislature is causing some businesses to doubt the wisdom of moving to or expanding in a state that ranks at or near the bottom in what it spends on K-12 students and has one of the nation’s worst graduation rates.

The Legislature also targeted higher education earlier this year when it cut $2.5 million from universities despite a budget surplus. An influential libertarian group that wants to abolish public education entirely says it will push for a $20 million cut to universities in 2022.

”The message the Legislature is sending to businesses is very discouraging,” said Rod Gramer, president of Idaho Business for Education, an advocacy group. ”I think it’s very harmful to our state. Not just our business community, but for our future as a state and our economy and our quality of life.”

For preschoolers, lawmakers earlier this year rejected a $6 million early childhood learning federal grant from the Trump administration. One Republican lawmaker said he opposed anything making it easier for mothers to work outside the home.

Those actions have a chilling effect, business leaders say, that raise doubts about whether Idaho can produce a skilled workforce. It also causes potential employees to question the education opportunities for their children.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences for the 2018-2019 school year said only five states and the District of Columbia had worse high school graduation rates than Idaho’s 81%. The Idaho State Department of Education said the graduation rate rose to 82.1% for 2019-2020, a school year that included the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, and the state eliminated some graduation requirements.

According to the National Education Association, the $7,705 Idaho spent per student in the 2019-2020 school year ranked it last in the nation. The association also estimates the average national classroom teacher salary at $65,000. Idaho ranks 39th with an average salary of just under $53,000 and 35th in average starting salary at $38,000.

Boise-based computer chip maker Micron Technology, one of Idaho’s largest employers, earlier this month announced plans to build a 500-worker, memory design center in Georgia. The company is the nation’s second-largest semi-conductor maker, with product development sites in five other states and eight countries.

Micron Chief People Officer April Arnzen, in a statement to The Associated Press, said the Atlanta Design Center will give it an opportunity to attract technical talent from a large and diverse student population from the area’s strong university presence, which includes Emory University, Georgia Tech, Morehouse College, Spelman College and the University of Georgia.

Micron has significant ties at Boise State University with the Micron College of Business and Economics and the Micron Center for Materials Research. Arnzen said K-12 and higher education are critical components to the company’s success in Idaho.

“A well-funded educational system is essential to maintaining our workforce and necessary for our team members and their families,” Arnzen said. “Continued attacks on our universities and community colleges make it harder to develop an effective workforce pipeline.”

But the influential, libertarian Idaho Freedom Foundation sees it differently.

“Our public schools are grotesque, and adding more money is not going to solve the problem,” the group’s president, Wayne Hoffman, said during a speech in northern Idaho earlier this month. “The government should not be in the education business. They’re brainwashing our kids.”

He said his group worked hard in getting Republican lawmakers to cut the $2.5 million from universities earlier this year. He said he wants to cut $20 million from universities when the Legislature meets in early 2022.

Primary talking points in getting the cuts this year were objections to social diversity and critical race theory. Critical race theory is a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism. Republican lawmakers accused universities of indoctrinating students.

Others see the issue as a ploy to stoke base voters and influence policy decisions to undermine education.

“It’s a red-herring issue,” said Gramer, the Idaho Business for Education president. “We’ve got to be investing in education and not listening to the naysayers.”

But Hoffman has about a dozen House Republicans and sometimes more who will vote according to his wishes, making his plan to cut $20 million from universities more than just grandstanding.

“There is a small, extreme right-wing view out there that is hostile toward public education and opportunities for Idahoans,” said Alex Labeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry, a business lobbying group.

On other fronts, far-right-wing Republican Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who is running against Republican Gov. Brad Little for his job, last summer gathered a like-minded task force to “examine indoctrination in Idaho education,” and made recommendations to the Legislature that included rejecting federal education grant money.

In northern Idaho, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities is reviewing the accreditation of North Idaho College after three of the five nonpartisan board of trustee seats were won by candidates backed by the far-right Kootenai County Republican Central Committee. With the majority, the board without cause fired the college president.

Additionally, many public school districts can’t get by on money allocated by state lawmakers, and they have turned to voters to ask them to approve levies for ongoing expenses or bonds to build schools, typically resulting in local property tax increases. Republican lawmakers in recent years have tried to eliminate some school bond and levy election dates.

Meanwhile, a group called Reclaim Idaho is gathering signatures to get the Quality Education Act on the November 2022 ballot. If the group is successful and voters approve, it would add $300 million annually to K-12 education. The money would come from raising the corporate income tax rate to 8% and adding a 4.5% income tax on high earners.

“We have a crisis in our state,” said Luke Mayville, co-founder of Reclaim Idaho.

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