In a head-nod to his highest priorities over the past year and a sign of things to come, Gov. Brad Little emphasized a continued push for education investment in the hopes of raising literacy levels and high scores in Idaho’s schools Monday, telling legislators too many of our children are slipping through their school’s cracks.
“When we commit to giving students a strong start and provide local schools the flexibility to determine how best to achieve it,” he said during his second State of the State address in Boise, “we see progress.”
“But still, too many students across the state are falling behind,” Little added. “About 12,000 kindergartners are not on track to read when they show up on Day One. My budget keeps our foot on the gas and makes our historic investment in literacy ongoing.”
The budget proposal his office is preparing to deliver to the Idaho Legislature will include $77.7 million for K-12 from the general fund, increasing last year’s education budget by just over 4 percent.
“As state-elected leaders, our constitutional obligation to K-12 public education is clear: Article 9, Section 1 states it is our duty ‘to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.’ But we also have a moral obligation to all our youngest citizens. I subscribe to the view that it is better to prepare children today than repair them later.”
The first-term chief executive pointed to the event’s lone special guest — Stacie Lawler of Spirit Lake, the recipient of the 2020 Idaho Teacher of the Year award — as an example of how learning is the responsibility of all Idahoans but relies most heavily on engaged and supported educators.
“We have the perfect example of an excellent teacher with us today,” Little said. “She is a health and [physical education] teacher at Timberlake Junior High School in Spirit Lake who focuses on the ‘whole child.’ She goes beyond teaching subject matter and helps her students build the skills they need to be successful in life, not just school.”
Lawler wasn’t the only local to appear in Little’s speech. The governor also highlighted the students, teachers and staff at Betty Kiefer Elementary in Rathdrum, where reading proficiency rose 32 percent during the last school year. He added that more than 85 percent of Betty Kiefer Elementary reached or exceeded grade-level reading proficiency in a school where more than one-third of its students come from low-income homes.
In a statement from the Idaho Education Association, president Layne McInelly praised Little after the speech for prioritizing the issue but added more is needed to improve public education.
“Gov. Little continues to demonstrate his commitment to public education in Idaho,” McInelly said. “Investing in our students, professional educators and public schools is the foundation of success and prosperity for our rapidly-growing state. The governor’s K-12 task force recommendations are a terrific starting point for moving our public education system forward and meeting the needs of students and communities. It is time Idaho stops playing catch-up and commits to investing in public schools.”
While Little has often been an outspoken champion for education investment — a history he solidified during his speech — the lead-off topic in his address covered a regulatory issue he hopes will streamline the legislative process and make laws more user-friendly.
“Just last month,” he said, “I was joined by many of you — my partners in the Legislature — in announcing Idaho surpassed South Dakota, and we are now the least-regulated state in the nation. Together, we cut and simplified 75 percent of all regulations in less than a year.”
Little went on to promise he will continue regulatory simplification in 2020.
“My first executive order this year will make it a routine practice for Idaho state government to undergo the kind of successful regulatory review we saw in 2019,” he said. “I’m calling it ‘Zero-Based Regulation.’ We are determined to have the administrative code remain clear and user-friendly.”
Little then added his administration will bring forward more than 30 pieces of legislation that would repeal outdated laws, from a wagon road in Neal to laws governing trespassing hogs.
“Idaho’s laws could use a good scrub,” he said.
“I think what the people of North Idaho will see is the government is not trying to dictate what businesses and people do,” state Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, said after the speech. “I think they’re going to see more decision-making and consequences to those decisions ... Getting rid of unnecessary regulations will free up businesses to grow, which will mean better jobs and better pay ... I’m thankful for the governor’s leadership on this.”
The 31-minute speech hit the talking points Gov. Little often stressed would be a priority in the coming session. In December, during a pair of winter visits to North Idaho, Little listed education among his top priorities, health care costs, land management, stronger infrastructure and grocery tax relief.
“I have long-supported tax relief for Idahoans on the most basic of needs: groceries,” he told the Legislature Monday. “My budget leverages $35 million from the dedicated Tax Relief Fund to provide Idaho families with grocery tax relief without competing against our General Fund priorities.”
“You know, I thought it was a very good speech,” Souza said. “I was impressed with the governor’s genuine excitement for the new year and his accomplishments over the last. He’s very optimistic about 2020, and I think that enthusiasm and leadership will help motivate the Legislature.”
Little: Centers make sense
Gov. Brad Little touched on an issue burning close to local voters’ hearts Monday: Community Re-Entry Centers, where the Idaho Department of Correction is eyeing the possibility of a future Kootenai County location for prisoners purportedly at a lower risk of recidivism to re-enter the area.
“The cost of investing in proven interventions that help inmates turn their lives around before they reoffend is fractional to the cost of incarceration,” Little said. “We have a choice. We can either invest in measures designed to reduce the demand for prison beds and promote safer communities, or we can do nothing and ensure the next check we write is larger than the last.”
Little finished the speech by connecting the Legislature’s progress from last year’s session as he looked forward to 2020.
“When I stood before you last year at this time, I pledged to make decisions through one lens,” Little said, “the lens of ensuring the best possible opportunities for us, our children and grandchildren to remain in Idaho and enjoy an unparalleled quality of life. That vision guides me every single day.”