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Carlson: Decline and fall

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

It did not start with Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, but the decline of higher education in Idaho has reached its nadir on his watch.

Consider the abysmal record of Idaho’s Board of Education. For all the good it does in serving the best interests of educating Idaho’s youth, from kindergarten through college, it might as well not exist. The state’s founders actually wrote the board into the Constitution to serve as the Regents of the University of Idaho. That’s how important they thought the role was.

Unfortunately, no more.

As an independent body supposedly put in place to advocate for the best interests of education, the Board of Education has in recent years been nothing more than a lap-dog for Idaho’s governors, especially Otter, who have been eviscerating education budgets, K-12 and higher ed, for years. Ponder this fact: the recently proposed Idaho higher education budget takes state support for colleges and universities back to where it stood in 2000. At the same time, mom, dad and the kids face sky- rocketing tuition and fees.

Most importantly, there’s little scrutiny and absolutely no challenge by the state board for what the governor, the state superintendent or the Legislature wants, regardless of how harmful to education’s interests it might be.

Forty years ago, the kind of people then serving, Democrats and Republicans alike, would have resigned en masse if they had been blindsided like the present board was by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna’s radical reform proposals not to mention the unfunded mandate they represent for local school districts.

Board members had not a clue. Nor were they consulted. And not a peep from them. I find that incredibly sad. I can recall strong pro-education Republican board members in the past, such as John Swartley of Boise, Ed Benoit of Twin Falls, Mal Deaton of Pocatello, Kenneth Thatcher of Rexburg and Janet Hay of Nampa.

On the Democratic side there were sensible, solid board members like A.L. “Butch” Alford Jr. of Lewiston, State Senator Mike Mitchell and Sandpoint’s J.P. “Doc” Munson. These folks took their role seriously; none were the kind of people a governor took for granted or expected to be a rubber stamp, as is the case today.

Democrats on the board of education? Yup. At one time governors like Republican Phil Batt and Democrat John Evans recognized the importance of a bi-partisan board and appointed members of each party. There’s not one Democrat on today’s board.

Instead, the Board was dominated just a couple years back by the likes of disgraced former Republican state chairman and Idaho Falls attorney Blake Hall, whose personal life read like a bad soap opera. Nonetheless, this partisan apparatchik engaged in blatant micro-management of the activities of Idaho’s university presidents down to dictating the tuition and fees each school could charge.

This current board never advocates any more for the kind of additional funding building a great higher education system would require to produce the 21st Century workforce needed for the state’s economic development. I’m guessing neither the governor, nor Luna, nor anyone on their staff have quite figured out the causal connection on that one.

If you were the talented Tim White, one of the best presidents the University of Idaho has had in 50 years, such biased micro-management, coupled with the board’s ignorance on how a university operates, was beyond the pale. I personally hold Hall, and Governors Otter and Kempthorne responsible for losing White to some branch campus in the University of California system.

Only last week did the board finally utter a word against a legislative effort to strip Idaho’s university presidents of their power prudently to ban concealed weapons from campuses as well as campus sporting events. I support basic, reasonable gun rights, but I also find it reassuring that campuses can at least try to prevent things like the Virginia Tech massacre two years ago by not sanctioning the carrying of concealed weapons on campus or to sporting events. Prohibiting guns in a classroom or at a sporting event is just common sense.

This board, however, can “boldly” move into the arena of campus politics at Idaho State University and authorize the abolition of the university’s Faculty Senate at the request of an embattled university president who can’t seem to master the art of working with the diverse interests present on any modern campus.

I long ago concluded that if a majority of the people of Idaho really cared about the importance of K-thru 12 and higher education, they would hold the Republican Party and its ineffective governors accountable for this sad state of educational affairs.

But not so. It should be no surprise then to any that Idaho is getting the educational system it deserves with “oversight” provided by a board that neither earns its keep nor can any longer justify its existence.

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