Kurt Liebich JFAC full size 1-24-22

Kurt Liebich, president of the Idaho State Board of Education, responds to questions from lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, at the state Capitol.

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BOISE — A top Idaho education official on Monday gave a full-throated defense of the state’s public education system that in recent years has come under attack by far-right-wing lawmakers seeking to cut financial support.

Idaho State Board of Education President Kurt Liebich told the Legislature’s powerful budget-setting committee that the state’s education system is directly responsible for Idaho’s economic success that this year includes a record budget surplus of $1.9 billion.

Lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this week are hearing budget requests from the state’s universities and colleges. Lawmakers last week heard the budget request for K-12 education.

Right-wing lawmakers last year succeeded in cutting $2.5 million from the budget request for 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 this year.

The Idaho State Board of Education has seven members appointed by the governor and the statewide-elected superintendent of public instruction. The board makes policy for students in kindergarten to those seeking advanced degrees.

Liebich noted several areas where the state needed to improve, citing among them reading proficiency for third graders and college entrance exams.

“But we should not waste our time trying to tear the system down, and we should all be focused on incremental improvement in each of these areas every single day,” he said. “Undermining our education system is not productive, and over time it will have an impact on our economy and our quality of life.”

Cutting university budget requests last year centered on 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.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, a committee member who voted for the cuts last year, on Monday made clear critical race theory would again be a focus when it came to approving education budgets this year. He said he disagreed with what he said was in some educator instructions.

“In that teacher training is diversity, equity and inclusion, which is a manifestation of critical race theory,” he said. “Parents are frustrated that they see more and more wokeness in their schools.”

Public education supporters have called that argument a red herring intended to undermine support of public education.

“I can tell you since I’ve been on the state board for two years, we have not spent one second talking about critical race theory,” Liebich told Nate. “It’s just not what we’re focused on. We’re just too busy trying to keep kids in school, keep the system moving during the pandemic.”

“We heard the concerns that were voiced at the Legislature last year,” he told the budget committee, “and what we’ve been trying to do over the last year is actually put some definitions around this stuff so we’re not running around the state chasing ghosts.”

He cited an extensive survey the board conducted of thousands of Idaho higher education students. “A supermajority of students across all institutions, class levels and political leanings feel valued, respected and have a sense of belonging at their respective institutions,” he said.

In addition, he said, “We are really trying to strengthen our freedom of speech and freedom of expression policies, to make it crystal clear how important we believe those things are through all of our education.”

After two years of frozen tuition at Idaho’s public colleges and universities, Liebich said this year will bring a tuition increase unless lawmakers take action to cover the cost of the governor’s recommended 5% increase in state employee pay. If that recommendation is adopted, state general funds would cover only half the costs at colleges and universities; tuition would need to rise to make up the rest, he said.

“As it stands right now, I don’t think the institutions can afford it without a tuition increase,” he said. Idaho’s resident tuition currently ranks 7th lowest in the nation, he said.

On the same day that Liebich spoke to lawmakers, the board released results of a study that found Idaho taxpayers see an 80% return for every dollar invested in higher education. The study was commissioned by the board and conducted by the Moscow, Idaho-based firm Emsi Burning Glass.

Liebich told lawmakers that the state needs to concentrate on four key issues regarding education.

The first was to make sure school districts had the resources they need to address learning setbacks caused by the coronavirus pandemic over the last three years.

Second, he said significant growth had to be addressed in urban areas, while some rural areas were losing students.

Third, he said higher education was critical to the state’s economy. “I cannot stress enough how important a vibrant and healthy higher-ed system is to our citizens, our business community and our state,” he said.

And, fourth, he said there was an inequity between rural and urban school districts that needed to be addressed, with rural schools falling behind.

Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little has recommended a record $300 million, 11% increase for K-12 education spending this year, and Liebich said he supported that budget request.

Lawmakers on the budget committee will hear various budget requests this week from universities, with votes on setting those budgets taking place later in the session.

Whatever the committee approves will also have to be passed by the House and Senate.

Idaho Press reporter Betsy Z. Russell contributed to this report.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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