It’s not hard to see why. Those who did get involved, such as Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot, who ended up spending $1.4 million on the lost cause of education reform this year, ended up with their names closely tied to the most divisive and unpopular issue of Idaho’s 2012 election cycle.
The propositions went down in a stunning defeat that surprised even the savviest supporters who had been watching the polls. The first and second parts, which would have limited teachers’ collective bargaining rights and instituted a new system of teacher merit pay, were rejected with margins of more than 12 percentage points. The third, which would have leased laptop computers for high schoolers and set up online class requirements, went down 67 percent to 33 percent.
When Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna sprung this latest round of reform proposals on the state in early 2011, the conversation went downhill quickly.
No wonder most business leaders steered clear. Not only were they trying to keep their own business afloat in a difficult economy, but they already had another policy discussion to monitor: the complicated conversation about health care reform. The education debate was almost as convoluted. The Luna reform plan was so complex that in the waning days of the campaign, Bob Lokken, the CEO of WhiteCloud Analytics, ended up writing an 8-page white paper on the proposal for members of the Idaho Technology Council.
Also, business people tend to avoid public policy discussions that have devolved into bitter arguments. Most stayed quiet when ugly rhetoric about teachers unions, misleading advertising and covert funding operations was boiling over in speeches, prepared statements, social media comments and private conversations.
Hopefully, when the conversation starts up again, it will be back on the even tone that characterizes most public discourse. And hopefully business people will dare to get involved. They have to. Their stake in this conversation is huge. Improving education is certainly the most intelligent thing Idaho can do to raise its dismal standing in national college attendance rankings. And it’s probably the single most important change the state can make to encourage economic development in and outside of the Treasure Valley.
There is a precedent for businesses going to the Capitol on education issues. Earlier this year, many businesses were strong proponents of the Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission, which came out of the Department of Commerce and targeted funding for universities to both research new, necessary technologies and spur new start up businesses.
There’s a lot business leaders can do without sticking their necks on the chopping block next winter, if education reform ends up as legislation once again.
First, they can talk to their lawmakers and other elected officials about what kind of education changes would help promote economic development. Yes, despite all the chatter, plenty of those leaders still don’t know. That’s why Luna’s reform plan promised a slew of laptops as a solution to technology deficits instead of emphasizing things like better preparation in math and other STEM subjects and better Internet connectivity.
Another thing the business folks can do is sit at the table when the next round of reform is crafted. That might be difficult if Luna once again springs his plan on the public with little input from stakeholders.
But that doesn’t seem likely. The teachers and their supporters say they’re already getting ready to come up with their own plan for reforming education. They say they’re going to invite all the elected leaders to the table. Well, business people, shoulder your way into a space at that table, too. You have some practical experience that could come in very handy.
Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of the Idaho Business Review.