Rod Gramer

Rod Gramer

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It seems our students cannot get a break.

Less than a decade ago public education in Idaho was cut by the sixth largest percentage in the country. Now Idaho’s schools are facing new budget cuts thanks to the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These cuts could stall much of the progress we have made in education the last several years. Years in which Idaho raised teacher salaries, increased money for literacy, emphasized academic advising, funded dual credits to jumpstart advanced education, and provided more scholarships to postsecondary.

Making a bad situation worse, a study by the non-profit NWEA and researchers at Brown and the University of Virginia concluded that the school closures this spring could put students “substantially behind academically” when they return in the fall. This setback will impact low-income and minority students who already lag their peers even more.

So, the question is: What can our state do to turn this lemon we have been handed into lemonade the best we can?

First, we have to recognize that education cannot weather an economic storm as well as other programs. Some things can wait until better days, but students only have one chance to obtain the learning they need to be successful. This is especially true for those most formative years from kindergarten to 4th Grade when students learn to read so they can read to learn.

Second, we must see education as the cornerstone of an economic rebound. Mary Daly, president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve, says we must be “ensuring that education and skill training continues so that when we get past the pandemic we can really grow and expand and include everyone in the economy with the skills necessary to take the jobs that are created.”

Reinforcing Daly’s emphasis on education is the stark reality that in May the jobless rate for workers with a high school education was 15.3 percent compared to 7.4 percent for those with a college degree. Fewer than half of high school graduates are working compared to two-thirds of college graduates.

Ensuring that students come through the pandemic whole must be a collaborative effort. Idaho policymakers must tap every available funding source to invest in education. This will require vision, innovative-thinking and political will.

When school starts this fall students at best will likely be in a blended learning environment where they spend time at school and time learning at home. At worst, they may be learning full time from home if the virus surges.

A survey by the State Board of Education last week showed that more than 100,000 students do not have a computer at home and up to 18,000 do not have internet service. To provide equity we must ensure that every student has the tools needed to learn remotely.

We also must ensure that teachers have the tools they need – computers and internet at home, effective remote learning platforms and the professional development to use them.

With the virus straining families, we must also ensure that we address the social-emotional needs of students and educators alike. Neither teachers nor students can be at their best when they are traumatized by the fallout from this pandemic.

In short, budget cuts and technological inequities threaten to make the achievement gap even wider. We cannot let them.

Education is an investment in Idaho’s future, one that will pay dividends for generations to come. That investment is more important now than ever as we prepare for the better days that will come once we defeat this invisible enemy.

Rod Gramer is president of Idaho Business for Education.

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