Savvy Idaho House member takes reins of Education Committee, pushes task force plan (Idaho Statesmen)

BY BILL ROBERTS; broberts@idahostatesman.com

What should you know about Julie VanOrden, Idaho’s new House Education Committee chairman?

She’s fair, smart and well informed, say Republicans and Democrats who know her.

“She’s a thinker,” said Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise, the committee’s new vice chair.

VanOrden, R-Pingree, was appointed chairwoman of the House Education Committee this fall after former Chairman Reed DeMourdant, an Eagle Republican, did not seek re-election.

VanOrden comes to the chair after serving in the Legislature since 2013 and serving as the Education Committee vice chairman for two years.

The committee structure in the Idaho Legislature is the prime conduit for legislation. Rarely do personal bills introduced by individual lawmakers get very far. So who chairs the committees largely determines what legislation gets even a hearing, much less a vote in committee and, from there, a trip to the floor of the House or Senate.

In Idaho, paying for education makes up 63 percent percent of the state’s $3.2 billion budget. Here are four more things to know about VanOrden, who will play a high-profile role in decisions about Idaho education.

1. JOB ONE: IMPROVE EDUCATION

VanOrden’s top goal: continue putting in place recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s 2013 task force for improving education.

Among those tasks: Put $57 million into boosting teacher salaries in the third year of the state’s career ladder aimed at attracting more teachers by raising teacher pay.

VanOrden works closely with Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, a former Bonneville School Board trustee who serves on the Legislature’s budget committee, tracking dollars to “make sure that we are funding things that need to be funded,” VanOrden said.

2. CONSIDERING SCHOOL CHOICE

School choice is likely to get more visibility with the nomination of Besty DeVos as President-elect Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, who has been a big advocate for expanding private and charter school choices in Michigan and elsewhere.

VanOrden supports school choice, which has an ardent following in Idaho where there are more than 50 charter schools. She’s open to discussing creating education savings accounts, a form of voucher, that would allow parents to use state education dollars in a variety of ways: “Whether it is services they need provided, tuition to a private school or even saving it up for college,” she said. “I think it is something we should investigate. I think there is interest in our state for it.”

But first, the legislative committee studying ways to change the way public education is funded must be allowed to do its work, she said. “Hopefully, in the end, we will have some tools to be able to offer those components on school choice.”

3. ROOM FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION?

Pre-school education is important, VanOrden says. But it must take its place in the priority line. And she espouses the long-established line set by many other Idaho legislators: “We need funding for K-12 before we look into pre-K,” she said.

She said the Legislature did pass a Pay For Success program a couple of years ago that could be used to help pay for early-childhood education programs or teacher education programs that demonstrate a proven record in the state for saving dollars or improving achievement.

She’s held conversations with lawmakers, noodling over an idea that would let pre-K students into public kindergarten. “I don’t know if it will happen this year,” she said.

4. POST-HIGH SCHOOL TRAINING

Idaho’s goal of making sure that 60 percent of residents ages 25 to 34 get a post-high school certificate or diploma by 2020 appears to be slipping away. “I don’t know if we are going to make it by then. Certainly we are going to keep moving toward that goal,” VanOrden said.

Fewer than half of the students graduating from Idaho high schools are going onto college the next fall, according to the State Board of Education. To try to boost that number, Idaho colleges are wooing students by sending out acceptance letters to graduating seniors even before they apply to a state college and university.

This year, lawmakers made $4,125 available per student in 7th through 12th grades for programs such as dual-credit enrollment, which gets them high school and college credit as they work on their high school diploma.

VanOrden thinks some of the most effective programs to boost post-high school attendance come when parents, students and businesses sit down together in local communities and talk about job availability and the education students need to get those positions.

In eastern Idaho, some businesses arranged days to come to the high schools to meet with teachers, students and parents. “They had incredible turnout in small communities,” said VanOrden. “They said the biggest success was getting the parents out.”

Bill Roberts: 208-377-6408@IDS_BillRoberts

JULIE VANORDEN

Age: 57

Occupation: Homemaker

Lives in: Pingree, 34 miles northwest of Pocatello

Education work: Served for 10 years at a trustee in the Snake River School District in Blackfoot. Served six year as chairman of that school board.