Idaho Politics: Education, The Gap, and Public Lands

by Judy Ferro

Following candidate forums in Pocatello and Twin Falls last week, newspapers in both cities ran nearly identical headlines stating that education, health care reform and public lands dominated discussions.

These are issues important to voters on which Democratic and Republican candidates differ; moreover, on these issues, most Idahoans agree with Democrats.

Republican legislators are good about setting high goals for students and schools, but not so good at achieving anything. For one thing, they tend to think change is so easy a little pontificating in Boise will make a difference. For another, they insist on ignoring the connection between money invested in schools over time and results.

In 2010 Republican legislators bragged about giving tax breaks to “job creators” (the wealthy) while cutting Idaho’s already dismal school funding by 20% and setting a goal that 60% of Idaho young people would “go on” with education after high school. They followed that up in 2012 and 2014 by implying teachers were incompetent and selfish and passing laws to eliminate faculty rights to speak out on issues such as class size and curriculum content. Predictably, teachers left the state and the profession. The “go-on” rate fell as students responded to tuition increases rather than legislators’ exhortations.

Voters rebuked the legislature by rejecting the Luna Laws and passing levies to maintain school quality. Some even voted Democrat for the first time.

So in 2015 and 2016 most Republican legislators supported increasing education funding enough to claim the K-12 appropriation reached 2009 levels, even though per student spending didn’t come close; we have 18,000 more students. The legislature also passed bills allowing college graduates with only six weeks of education training to teach in public schools, and anyone to teach in charter schools. Funding for higher education remained dismal.

Now voters have the choice of saying they endorse the mixed offerings of Republican legislators or whether they want more for their schools.

On health care reform, Republicans have been content to hold hearings and do nothing. If Republicans had their say, the fact that 82,000 Idahoans have no access to affordable insurance would never come up. Apparently, saving lives and tax payer dollars is less important than ensuring people don’t become “dependent.” It’s okay for legislators to depend on state health care, Federal Ag supports, and beefed-up retirement deals. It’s even okay for general citizens to depend on government-ensured clean air and water, and safe bridges and roads. But we dare not follow many industrialized countries and treat health care similarly.

Voters may decide between candidates who think unnecessary deaths are tragedies or someone who promises a better plan some unforeseeable day in the future.

Republican candidates seem united on promoting state ownership—or at least management—of public lands, but there could be an underlying split. Some may actually believe the state could better manage these lands, especially if the Feds hand over the funds they are currently spending. Others, however, are determined to see the state funnel every cent that can be wrung out of the land into some corporate deep pockets, just like private prisons and chain charter schools.

For years Republican think tanks have been promoting plans to monetize even our national parks by mining, forestry, and recreation use of the same land to separate entities. Selling, not leasing. As in forever.

Voters are being asked to embark on a “slippery slope” without knowing just how much of our land access Republicans are willing to lose.

Your job as a voter is to examine candidates’ stands on the issues and dare to vote for someone you agree with.