It could be worse.
Idaho ranks 20th nationwide for high-school graduation. Census Bureau data shows 90.2 percent of Idaho high school students earn a diploma, a few percentage points higher than the national average of 87.3 percent.
Idaho lags behind the nation overall for college graduates — 26.8 percent of the Gem State population has an undergraduate degree vs. 30.9 percent nationwide.
The picture grows worse still for graduate degrees: Only 8.5 percent of Idahoans have completed graduate school, compared with 11.8 percent nationally. Only seven states fare worse.
So while the state certainly isn’t flunking out — 2019 ACT tests scores ranked in the Top 20 — Idaho definitely has room to improve when it comes to education.
Still, two forces think the state can do better: The Idaho business community and the governor.
Idaho Business for Education, a group of more than 200 Gem State industry leaders focused on transforming Idaho’s education system, is aligned with Gov. Brad Little’s K-12 task force to forge a better future for students.
Idaho Business for Education chief Rod Gramer said securing legislative support for education has been gaining momentum in Idaho after past struggles.
In a presentation on Thursday to the Idaho School Boards Association at The Coeur d’Alene Resort, Gramer said a key to improving education in Idaho starts at an early age.
A survey of 1,750 people, including teachers, parents and business leaders, found high support for early literacy — kindergarten through third grade — improves long-term student outcomes and increases the likelihood students will go to college after high school.
The data, he said, showed tangible support for early education is badly lacking in Idaho, especially during the critical preschool years.
“Idaho is one of only four states in the country that does not offer state support for pre-K [education],” Gramer said. “So a lot of parents have partnered with the YMCA, United Way, or the business community. They took on the challenge themselves to find those early education opportunities.”
At the early grade-school level, Gramer said, lawmakers have increasingly allocated more money for elementary education.
The results are already evident.
“Our Idaho Reading Indicator scores for grades one through three are showing promising improvement thanks to better funding,” Gramer said.
“Three years ago, the Legislature started investing in literacy, increasing the funding for reading from $2.3 million to more than $11 million.”
The state’s support didn’t stop there.
“Almost miraculously,” Gramer said, “Gov. Little persuaded lawmakers to double the amount of money earmarked for literacy, to $26 million, during the last legislative session.”
The infusion of money, Gramer said, should help increase reading scores in the years ahead. But that will require continued support from lawmakers.
“They need to at least re-appropriate $26 million for literacy in the 2020 session,” Gramer said.
He’s cautiously optimistic they will.
“Having lawmakers do that is not a slam dunk, and will require a lot of support from all of us to get the funding we need to continue making progress,” he said.
Earlier last week, the governor’s K-12 task force approved five recommendations — among them increasing teacher pay and all-day kindergarten — to improve education. Idaho Business for Education’s board of directors is scheduled to meet this week and is expected to adopt those recommendations, Gramer said.
“And then that will be our cause to push before the 2020 Legislature,” he said. “We’re going to need a lot of support from the legislators to implement these goals. Without it, we’ll be hard-pressed to make any progress.”
The K-12 task force recommendations:
• Statewide accountability focusing on K-3 literacy.
• Greater all-day kindergarten opportunities to support K-3 literacy and future student achievement.
• Updating the teacher career ladder salary allocation program to elevate the profession and retain staff.
• Address social and emotional issues to support student learning, including trauma and mental illness.
• Strategic alignment and increased flexibility in K-12 funding.
The governor’s K-12 panel’s goals aligned with Idaho Business in Education’s, Gramer said.
“Both support promoting early childhood literacy, elevating teacher pay and addressing students’ mental health,” he said, noting anxiety, bullying and depression have reached a crisis in Idaho.
“Idaho has the fifth-highest rate of teen suicide in the country,” he said. “Gov. Little took a special interest and is acutely aware and concerned about mental-health issues.”
Mental wellness was just one common denominator between Idaho Business for Education’s goals and the governor’s task force.
Idaho Business for Education’s recommendations:
• Establish a statewide vision for education in Idaho. A singular vision adopted by the state and its schools (public, private, and charter) will help drive improved academic performance while helping the future workforce develop crucial non-cognitive skills.
• Promote and create postsecondary and career pathways. Awareness of college and career choices in Idaho is low. Achieving a 60% first year go-on rate requires a modern approach to awareness, consideration, and preference.
• Improve early childhood literacy. The solution to early literacy in Idaho may not be a legislative one, but rather a para-governmental program armed with high-quality materials to empower and enable families to help students learn how to read and prepare to start elementary school on the right foot.
• Elevate the teaching profession. Urge Idaho’s government and institutions to identify additional alternative methods to elevate the teaching profession, especially in ways other than salary or total cash compensation.
• Address the emerging student mental health challenges. College and career counselors say such issues can circumvent the continuing education process.
While strides are being made from the IBE and governor’s task force, Gramer said there’s a long road ahead if Idaho hopes to make the grade in its pursuit of educational excellence.
“It’s been an uphill climb, but we soldier on,” he said.
Governor’s Task Force members
Co-chairwoman Debbie Critchfield, Idaho State Board of Education president
Co-chairman Bill Gilbert, Caprock co-founder and managing director, Boise
Juan Alvarez, INL deputy director management and operations, Idaho Falls
Marc Beitia, American Falls High School teacher and 2019 Idaho Teacher of the Year
Cheryl Charlton, Idaho Digital Learning Academy superintendent
Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls
Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise
Katherine Hart, Melaleuca associate general counsel, Idaho Falls
Jody Hendrickx, St. Maries School District trustee and Idaho School Boards Association vice president
Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls
Shawn Keough, Associated Logging Contractors executive director, Coeur d’Alene
Pete Koehler, retired chief deputy superintendent and former Nampa High School principal and superintendent
Kurt Liebich, RedBuilt CEO, Boise
Erin McCandless, Idaho State PTA president
Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls
Rep. Jason Monks, R-Nampa
Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls
Kari Overall, Idaho Education Association president
Jennifer Parkins, Genesee Joint School District board chairwoman and Idaho School Boards Association president
Mary Ann Ranells, West Ada School District superintendent
Terry Ryan, Bluum CEO, Boise
Luke Schroeder, Kimberly School District superintendent
Matt Van Vleet, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories government affairs director, Lewiston
Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise
Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise
Sherri Ybarra, Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction
In a survey of 500 Idaho educators ...
• 74 percent rated their school ‘good’ or ‘excellent’
• 68 percent said their workload is too heavy
• 74 percent felt supported by administrators