Is it good for kids? (10/9/2014)

The recent honoring of an education advocate in Boise reminds us of the question all should asking as we debate policy into the future, writes David Adler.

By David Adler

Skip Oppenheimer, a pillar of strength for Boise and, indeed the State of Idaho, for his many acts of civic leadership, was justly honored recently by Idaho Voices for Children, for his visionary and wide-ranging contributions to education.

With this award, Oppenheimer joins the list of outstanding citizens who have championed the cause of education in the Gem State, as both a vehicle for personal fulfillment, achievement and enrichment, as well as an investment in the future of Idaho. Previous honorees include Barbara Morgan, the astronaut and champion of STEM education, and the venerable Gov. Cecil D. Andrus, acclaimed for his leadership and implementation of kindergarten in Idaho.

Jim Everett, another previous recipient of recognition from Idaho Voices, clearly enjoyed his role in recounting for the luncheon crowd of 400, who gathered at Boise State University to celebrate the stunning list of Oppenheimer’s contributions to the health, welfare and vitality of Idaho. Everett’s tribute focused on Oppenheimer’s deep sense of responsibility to make the world around him a better place.

Oppenheimer’s assumption of leadership on the education front, and various civic causes personifies, Everett told the audience, Martin Luther King’s trumpet call to duty: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Which means, Everett said, that “Skip Oppenheimer will keep working for at least another 180 years.”

Oppenheimer, the founding chair of Idaho Business for Education, an admirable organization of Idaho CEOs and business leaders championing the cause of education, told the audience that he had “the incredibly good fortune” to have been inspired by family values that exalted the importance of education. For a state that espouses “family values,” education should be a priority-for governmental officials, the business community and the citizenry. It cannot be emphasized enough that education is the pathway to personal success and a better Idaho.

But that path, Oppenheimer explained, is lined with challenges. Only one-third of our third-grade students are above basic reading proficiency, and third grade reading, studies have shown, is “a key predictor of the ability of students to graduate and to go onto college.” That problem helps to explain why Idaho has one of lowest “GoOn” and completion rates in the country.

That problem is exacerbated by the fact that half of those who do go to our universities require remedial math and English. Those problems can’t be solved overnight, of course, but they can be addressed through an emphasis on early learning which, Oppenheimer rightly noted, is a subject that “too few of our state leaders” are discussing, despite the fact that it is critical to “setting children up for success in schoolwork and life.”

Oppenheimer’s calm, but firm voice, reminded his audience that facts can’t be ignored. “Study after study shows that children learn best when they learn early.”

“Sooner or later and hopefully sooner,” Oppenheimer explained, “we must start viewing education as a continuum that starts at birth and continues into kindergarten and first grade, extends into middle school and high school, expands into post-secondary education and never stops.”

That vision of education, as a lifelong learning opportunity to improve the quality of life for Idaho and its citizenry, is powerful and attractive. Indeed, who would argue with a system that would improve children’s opportunities for success?

The policy debate on the future of education in Idaho, one filled with challenges and opportunities, should be an ongoing dialogue among all stakeholders which, frankly, means everyone.

The great goal that should animate and guide that discussion, Oppenheimer observed, is clear: “Is it good for the kids?”

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Adler is the director of Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, where he holdsappointment as the Cecil D. Andrus Professor of Public Affairs.