Podcast: Education to Employment
Idaho Business for Education president Rod Gramer sat down with associate producer Logan Finney to discuss the state of education in Idaho, including legislative investments like the expanded Idaho Launch program and outstanding needs like stable funding for school facilities.
READ: Education to Employment with Rod Gramer
Logan Finney, Idaho Reports: Joining me this week is Rod Gramer, president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education. Rod, thanks for joining us.
Rod Gramer, Idaho Business for Education: Nice to see you. Thank you.
IR: So to get us started here, for folks who don’t spend a lot of time around the legislature or aren’t close with their school district, what is Idaho Business for Education and what sort of work do you do?
Gramer: We are a group of more than 250 business leaders from around the state, from Sandpoint to Idaho Falls. And our mission is to create the- Well, our mission is to strengthen the education system from pre-K through higher ed to create the workforce our employers need, but also to set students up for success in school, work and life. Because if we can do that, the workforce will take care of itself if we can set students up for success.
IR: Sure. So setting the baseline of education to help the business community down the road?
Gramer: Yeah. Help the business community, but also help our communities, our students and our state prosper economically. We’re really interested in working with educators. Because we’re not educators, so we we can’t tell them how to be better educators, and we don’t even pretend to. But what we can do is we can advocate for those policies and investments that give them a chance to be successful, and students to be successful.
So that’s what we do.
IR: And so you’re here visiting the Idaho Public Television studio in Boise for the Age of Agility conference, which is hosted by the Workforce Development Council. What is the Age of Agility conference and what were you guys talking about today?
Gramer: Well, we started – IBE and the Workforce Development Council – started these conferences five years ago. This was our fifth annual. And the whole idea is that we need an educated and highly skilled workforce for our economy. Right now, you know, we are in historic times of historic change. First of all, you know, technology, the economy is changing all the time.
And we started this conference five years ago with the theme that educators and employers have to be agile. We have to be nimble. We have to be able to adjust to the times. We need to innovate. And so that’s the theme almost every year of our conference. This year, we we had a great speaker, Tom Mueller, who was a raised in St. Maries, Idaho, who became the second employee of Space X and designed all the rockets that Space X sent into space. Had a great speaker talking about generational differences, which was really interesting.
And we also had panels on, you know, workforce development and programs like Within Reach, with IBE does.
IR: And so, in kind of in that theme of this shift that we’re undergoing, both in the workforce and the education realm. The state has put a lot of funding and a lot of investments into education in the last couple of years. Talking with budget writers and other education-focused lawmakers, they’re telling us that there’s a historic amount of money in the K-12 budget this year.
Between that and the new Idaho Launch program – which is that workforce development training for for newly graduating seniors – between those sort of investments, is your organization optimistic about the state of education in Idaho?
Gramer: Yeah, I think we are very optimistic about it. We’ve actually been investing now since 2013. We’ve been making some really serious, important investments in education. We’re not there yet, I want to say that. We’re still ranked 51st in the whole country for what we spend on education, but we really are making progress. The voters last fall approved $410 million new dollars – well the legislature approved it, then the voters overwhelmingly approved – 410 million new dollars for education.
IR: Sure, that was that advisory vote from the special session.
Gramer: Yeah, the advisory vote in November. This last legislature, we didn’t know what kind of legislature it was going to be because we had almost 50% of the whole legislature was new. There was new new chairs of key committees and things. But we really, it turned out we had a really good session for education in Idaho. We invested heavily in teacher salaries.
That’s going to help us with starting teacher salaries and also veteran teachers. We invested in buildings, we invested in new CTE programs and of course, probably the landmark legislation in my opinion, and a historic piece of legislation, was Idaho Launch. That is going to be a game changer for our state, as the governor said today opening our conference.
IR: We’re a few weeks out from the legislative session now. Can you remind folks what the Idaho Launch expansion is?
Gramer: Yeah, the Idaho Launch provides several thousand dollars for every graduating high school senior in Idaho to pursue an associate degree, or technology degree at a college of technology, or an apprenticeship, or how to become a truck driver. It’s money that they can receive to essentially get the career that they desire. And that is a historic piece of legislation because we know the number one reason students don’t go on to post-secondary, or one of these paths, is a lack of money.
And so a companion bill also serves the four year schools, LCSC, UI, Boise State and ISU. That bill provides $20 million exclusively for those four year schools for scholarships called the Opportunity Scholarship. So these two pieces of legislation are really going to change the outcomes for our students. They’re really going to be able, if they choose – and hopefully they will – to go on to something and get a great career.
Finances should be less of a issue than it has ever been.
IR: And so as we’re seeing the state and stakeholders make these investments and put up the money to help students get these in-demand careers, do you think that the legislature has an appetite to keep up with that? You know, I hear from school administrators that sometimes they’re sure they’ve got money from the state this year, but there’s no guarantee that it’s going to keep flowing.
Gramer: Well, every year the legislature sort of reboots, and every year we’ve got to fight for education, and education funding, and policies that strengthen education. You know, the work of the legislature never takes a vacation. I mean, every two years you have a whole new legislature, and every year you’ve got to go back in and advocate for education.
I mean, education is the key to our state’s economy, especially right now that we’re in a structural labor shortage. We simply don’t have enough workers to fill all the jobs in Idaho. Every employer cannot find the human talent that they need, and studies have shown that what’s going to make a difference between success and failure, prosperity or not, is human talent.
And that means education. There’s no other way to create a talented workforce if it’s not education. So the legislature, you know, sometimes they don’t like to spend money. But this is this is about investing money, not spending money. This is about building the the talent that we need and all employers need so our state can be successful, so people can have a high quality of life in Idaho.
And ultimately, that is the bottom line: quality of life in Idaho. Because if people have good jobs, we have a strong economy, our businesses are doing well, that’s going to lead. People can buy trucks, they can buy snowmobiles, they can go skiing. We’ll continue to have a high quality of life in Idaho if we keep investing.
That’s the message we have to keep giving to the legislature every year, because sometimes they forget that. And that’s why we’re 51st in the country, right? And so, yes, we just have to keep working at this.
IR: And so as you guys are getting ready for the upcoming session come 2024 – of course, we’re talking in May so it’s still very early in the year – what sort of priorities will I be looking at or considering for the upcoming session? Acknowledging that you don’t have anything formal yet.
Gramer: Well, we have a policy committee, and the policy committee that’s starting in the summer will look at what the issues are, you know, what holes, what what do we need to do? I don’t want to prejudge what that committee will recommend to our board of directors, but I think we’ve got to come up with a solution around school facilities.
I mean, just yesterday – because we’re taping this on May 17th -just yesterday, we had about a billion dollars, I haven’t figured it, but it looked like about a billion dollars of school facilities up for election yesterday.
IR: And several of those bond measures were things that had failed just a few months ago.
Gramer: Yeah, and of course, we had a huge one in in West Ada. Idaho is one of the few states that gives very little support to local school districts to build buildings and fix buildings up. Meanwhile, we make it extremely difficult for them to pass a school bond because we are one of only two states that requires a supermajority, two-thirds majority to pass.
And then this last legislative session, we took away the most successful day to pass school bonds, and that’s in March. So, you know, it’s sort of like strike one, strike two, strike three, and pretty soon you’re out, right? So we have about between a $877 million and a $1.3 billion school facilities problem in Idaho.
IR: And that’s just for the buildings across the state?
Gramer: Yeah. And we have known that since the early nineties. The Idaho Supreme Court in 2005 ruled that the legislature is out of compliance with the Idaho Constitution because we were not funding buildings appropriately. And the state legislature’s own Office of Performance Evaluations did the most recent study. And so what we know is that we’ve got a huge problem.
What we don’t know is what’s the solution. We had an interim committee work on this last year and they had a very – in my opinion – minor tweak to the process, and even that didn’t pass the legislature. So, I see this not just as, you know, we’ve got to give our kids a safe and an adequate learning environment first of all.
But also, it’s also a property tax issue as well, because we keep laying the burden of this on to the property taxpayers when it’s really the state’s responsibility to make sure kids across Idaho have a free, thorough uniform education experience.
IR: Sure, that constitutional mandate. Something that lawmakers did do this year, part of the big property tax relief bill that they passed, was some of the money in that bill goes to school districts to make their bond and levy payments – or to, if they have no bond and levy payments, eventually the hope is they’d be able to bond against that funding instead of property taxes.
Do you think that that is a good model going forward, or do you think it needs to be something more direct where the state itself is paying for school buildings, rather than giving schools money to decide what to do with? Where do you see that shaking out?
Gramer: You know, I would like it if, I have advocated for the state to create a revolving grant program where schools that need to build a building, or renovate a building or whatever, expand a building, can go to the state and get a grant and at least part of that construction cost would be matched by the state. It might be unrealistic to expect the state to pick up 100%, but if we could get the state to put some skin in the game, the voters might be more likely to approve a bond at the local level.
I actually advocated that this would be a perfect place to put some of that one-time surplus money that we’ve enjoyed for the last two years, a great place to invest that money. And it would also help on the property tax side because frankly, sooner or later we’ve got to fix these buildings, right? Or they’re going to fall in and the kids are going to, you know.
IR: All it takes is one big snowfall to put that roof down.
Gramer: Yeah. So the legislature has to sort of look at this and say this is really a tax relief effort as well. So when you have good times like we’ve had, I think it would have made a heck of a lot of sense to put a big chunk of that surplus into some kind of fund where we could tap it over the next few years.
And maybe replenish it from time to time. Again, we don’t, at least IBE doesn’t have the solution. But I think one of the things we should do – and this is what we do in business all the time – is look at best practices. What are other states doing? I mean, clearly we are putting up all kinds of hurdles for educators and students and patrons, right?
What are other states doing? You know, let’s look at other states, find out what best practices are, and let’s see if we should adopt some of those best practices so that we can fix this problem eventually.
IR: All right. Well, we’ll keep an eye on the policy proposals that come out of IBE later on in the summer.
Gramer: Sounds good.
IR: Rod Gramer, president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education. Thanks for making time for us.
Gramer: Thank you very much.
Logan Finney | Associate Producer
Logan Finney is a North Idaho native with a passion for media production and boring government meetings. He grew up skiing, hunting and hiking in the mountains of Bonner County and has maintained a lifelong interest in the state’s geography, history and politics. Logan joined the Idaho Reports team in 2020 as a legislative session intern and stayed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hired as an associate producer in 2021 and they haven’t been able to get rid of him since.