The Idaho Legislature, back in regular session this last week, is about to be yanked in two radically different directions on one of its core subject areas: education.
That split was apparent in two vivid events on the same day, the first day of the session.
The first event was the state of the state speech by Governor Brad Little, which had a strong standout section aimed at sharply changing the trajectory of Idaho public education.
Following on the big surplus-driven cash infusion from last fall, he proposed a string of funding efforts from scholarships to raising teacher pay and an emphasis on bolstering public schools. “Our commitment to public schools is both our constitutional obligation and it is our moral obligation,” he said. “When I started this job four years ago, Idaho was 41st in the country for starting teacher pay. In four short years, we will have catapulted starting teacher pay in Idaho from the bottom 10 to the top 10. We’re also going to grow the salaries of all teachers, including the most experienced ones, to ensure students have the classroom support they need.” Nor was that all; he outlined support for other aspects of public schools as well.
It was the kind of ambitious push many governors even in blue states would have been happy to give, and Idaho can (with its ongoing strong revenue) readily afford it. Little will have all or nearly all of the education community in the state in his corner as budgets and education policy are set this session.
But will that be enough?
Little’s agenda was, within the world of Idaho Republicans, highly controversial, and a big question arises about just how many votes he will get when bills are proposed in the Idaho Legislature.
You can get a look at what’s coming from a statement shortly after the State of the State from the Idaho Republican chair, Dorothy Moon: “While the Governor is right to emphasize education as a pathway to economic prosperity, his embrace of teacher’s union policy objectives—including a vast increase in spending without increased accountability metrics—is deeply disappointing. Idaho is not Colorado. And yet, the Governor’s vision for the next four years sounded no different than the vision offered by Colorado’s incumbent progressive Democrat governor. These policies do not benefit students. Much like the failed remote schooling policies pursued during the COVID-19 pandemic, the policies that Governor Little is advocating exist to benefit unions, not to educate students. Unsurprisingly, then, the State Legislature’s leading Democrats have all publicly acclaimed the Governor’s address and offered their full support for his agenda.
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“Some might dismiss these concerns as an unnecessary rebuke. But our concern is not about being seen to rebuke Idaho’s Republican Governor but rather to stand with the people of Idaho, who have made it clear that they want policies consistent with conservative principle.”
This was the state Republican chair speaking about the Republican governor. (For the historically minded, it brings to mind the period around 1965.)
With that in mind, your attention is drawn to a local school board meeting held about six hours later and 25 miles west of the Statehouse, in Caldwell. The board was considering a new policy on gender and sexual identity, and as will happen these days it drew a shouting crowd.
The pivotal speaker was a new Republican state senator from Caldwell, Chris Trakel, who effectively yelled that the proposed policy would damage children and added, “You will face litigation ... You call that a threat, I’m telling you that is what will happen. It’s already happened in several states and there’s already been rulings on it. So, before you waste taxpayer money, before you put a kid in harm’s way, you better throw this policy out.”
He knew his audience, apparently: Only the torches and pitchforks were missing.
Don’t think the state budget proposal was necessarily the central story of that opening legislative day, and the Caldwell meeting a sideshow, or that they’re about two different things. They’re both about the future of Idaho schools.
Collision is dead ahead.