State education task force eyes big changes to improve schools

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) -- Crowded classrooms in Meridian, Idaho's largest school district, are just one sign of what the governor's education task force says is the most important fix needed for state schools: getting back the money education lost since the recession in 2008.

The grand total is about $82 million.

Meridian School District Superintendent Linda Clark served on the governor's education task force.

"We didn't give it a number one," she said. "We just said, based on our work and the input from around the state, restoration of operational funding is the highest priority in fiscal stability."

Gov. Butch Otter agrees and says as that money is restored, the key will be to spend it more efficiently.

"What's gonna be conditioned on is if we've learned how to do things better, I want to make sure we pay for them to do things better," the governor said.

The task force included 31 people from different backgrounds.
Parent Mike Lanza is one. He helped lead the successful repeal last year of three controversial education reform laws.

"Our education system is crumbling because of the disinvestment Idaho has made in schools the past several years," Lanza said. "It's a very big problem."

The task force also found teacher pay is driving many from the state.
So the panel recommends significant pay hikes for teachers, including a starting salary of $41,000 for beginning instructors -- up from $31,000 now.

"We are simplifying the system," said Clark, "making salaries more competitive but that comes with a really heightened amount of accountability because it's based more than ever on performance."

The task force says teachers who show leadership should be paid for their initiative.

"Teachers ought to have a mechanism that they can share good ideas and support fellow teachers," said Richard Westerberg, a state Board of Education member who chaired the task force. "There should be a program that allows master teachers to mentor younger teachers who are just gaining the skills."

Most of the 21 recommendations face a difficult journey.

From the governor's office, they must pass through the senate and then make it through the House. If all the proposals are adopted at once, it would cost about $350 million.

One lawmaker who sits on the education task force admits that's a hefty price tag but she's optimistic.

"I think we have an opportunity to move these recommendations forward," said Rep. Janie Ward-Engleking, (D) Boise. "Maybe in a five-year period. We don't have the money to do it all in one year."

A phased-in plan seems reasonable to other task force members as long as the state starts now.

"We need to be concerned we're not in a race to the bottom nationally in terms of how we deliver education in this state," Lanza said.