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Education and Idaho

mendiola MARK


Idaho’s natural beauty and the inherent decency of its people can mask serious problems confronting the state, Idaho Business for Education’s president and chief executive officer says, comparing the Gem State to an old, stately, beautiful mansion whose foundation is rotting, cracking and direly in need of repair.

Addressing a recent City Club of Idaho Falls luncheon, Rod Gramer said unless its owners get to work and invest money, the foundation will crumble and the damage will worsen.

Answering an audience question, Gramer — a veteran Idaho Statesman and KTVB news professional who recently returned to Boise after working in Oregon and Florida — said it has been estimated that it will take $82 million to $120 million to replace the education funding lost in Idaho the past six years.

He commended legislators for this year pumping $32 million in new dollars for education, stressing that that money should be viewed as an investment, not an expense, emphasizing the dots need to be connected between education and Idaho’s economy. He called it “the best public school budget in seven years.”

Gramer said simple formulas mean a weak education system, plus a weak economy, equal a poor quality of life as opposed to a strong education system and a strong economy combining to boost Idaho’s standard of living.

“Fate won’t determine this. The people of Idaho must decide. The choice is ours,” he said, warning that like the Roman Emperor Nero, Idahoans can fiddle while metaphorical Idaho burns.

Gramer noted that in 2012, Idaho ranked 50th among the states in per capita wages. Idaho was No. 1 in the nation for the percentage of hourly workers — 7.7 percent — who made the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 or less in 2012. Nationally, 4.7 percent made minimum wage or less in 2012.

The Idaho Department of Labor reported that more young people are leaving the state than moving to the state.

“These are statistics we ignore at our own peril,” Gramer said. Rebuilding starts with education, which is “a passport to the American dream.” Government for and by the people cannot and will not succeed without an educated populace who can make wise decisions, he added.

Only 39 percent of Idahoans have earned college degrees or have post-secondary trade certification, but 61 percent have some college, high school or less. That level of education was fine in the past for most of Idaho’s history when mining, logging, farming and other such jobs sufficed, but that is not now the case, Gramer said, noting manual work such as driving trucks or working in a body shop now requires computer training.

When the J.R. Simplot Co.’s new 380,000-square-foot Caldwell potato processing plant opens in April, its robotics will make it the most state-of-the-art processing plant of its kind in the world, but only 250 will be needed to operate it. Its existing plants in Nampa, Caldwell and Aberdeen will be shut down with a net loss of 800 jobs.

“The shift in the job market is all over the United States, causing a dramatic effect on the economy and the lives of people,” Gramer said.

The nation’s income gap, education gap and jobs gap are all related. Those with only high school diplomas have lost their earning power. During and since the Great Recession, those with college degrees gained 187,000 jobs, he pointed out.

It has been estimated that 60 percent of jobs by 2018 will need employees with post-secondary education or advanced training. Meanwhile, Idaho has the worst “go on” to college record in the nation for graduating high school seniors — only about 46 percent — who enroll in two- or four-year colleges or universities.

Gramer advocated that a professional study be conducted to gauge the actual “go-on” percentage, including church missionaries who later attend college after returning to Idaho.

More than 80 percent of Idaho freshmen in college need remedial math and English, and 25 percent of four-year college students need remediation. A third of Idaho fourth graders cannot read at their grade levels.

The Idaho Governor’s Task Force for Improving Education recommends raising the bar for math and English in the state’s public school system via core standards. Gramer estimated it will cost several hundred million dollars to implement the task force’s recommendations, but it’s the best opportunity for moving the state forward.

Gramer praised the attitude of Native American chiefs who believe the present generation has a responsibility for the welfare and well-being for their descendents seven generations out. The founding fathers of Idaho 125 years ago or nearly seven generations ago also required a thorough and uniform education system for all of the state’s children, he observed.

“They were willing to sacrifice, invest and work,” he said, stressing that strengthening the education system builds the economy. “It’s now up to us to emulate their dedication.”

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