Friday, February 1, 2013

Hitchcock: Should We Trust the SBOE?

Editor's Note: The following was submitted to and printed by the Idaho State Journal and appears here with the permission of the author, Leonard Hitchcock.

SHOULD WE TRUST THE SBOE?

Governor Otter has turned over the job of gathering information on how to improve Idaho’s educational system to the State Board of Education (SBOE).  The SBOE is, indeed, a logical choice to undertake the task, in that it has official oversight of the state’s educational system and its mission is to promote the cause of learning.  Unfortunately, there are several good reasons to believe that the SBOE cannot be trusted to do this job well.

It is a polite fiction that the SBOE is aloof from politics.  All its members are appointees of the governor, share his political convictions, and invariably follow his lead on policies.  The SBOE officially endorsed all of Luna’s laws and even enacted a policy requiring on-line course work (which it revoked after the November vote).  Luna is, of course, a member of the Board (albeit ex-officio) and apparently able to hold sway over it with regard to K-12 policy.

The resumes of the eight SBOE members do not suggest that Otter has sought out candidates with extensive backgrounds in education.  Only one of the eight has an advanced degree in education and only two appear to have had teaching experience.  Most members are businesspersons and their advanced degrees, if any, are professional ones.  (Luna, famously, has no conventional college degree at all.)  Two members were career military men.  The interests that members represent, aside from Micron, the Flying A Ranch, and DeBest Plumbing & Mechanical, are regional and/or those of specific universities, viz. BSU and the U. of Idaho.

Over the past several years, major SBOE projects to improve Idaho’s educational system make it clear that the Board subscribes to what might be called the “Industrial” model of education.  It conceives of education as essentially a factory that produces products called workers.  In 2011 the Board president told the Lewiston Morning Tribune that Idaho’s colleges and universities would have to “… produce a lot more ‘widgets’ without a corresponding increase in state funding.” 

The Board project titled “Complete College Idaho” aims at increasing the percentage of Idahoans age 25-34 who have acquired a post-secondary degree or certificate from the current 31.4% to 60% by 2020. The rationale for the project, as described in the official document, is that education must be “responsive to the needs of business” and generate degrees that are “of value in the marketplace.”  It assures us that governor Otter is bent upon “growing the economy through innovation and talent.” Provisions of the plan seek to “accelerate completion” of degree programs by lowering the number of credits required and making it more difficult for students to take courses not directly related to their majors.  “Performance-based funding” for educational institutions will direct funding to programs that are “productive,” i.e. generate degrees with minimal cost-per-graduate and have a high job placement rate.  This project has its virtues, to be sure, but ignores the traditional values associated with a college education and potentially skews funding in favor of certain subject areas.

The SBOE has also generated a “Strategic Research Plan” for higher education.  Again, the only goal addressed is enhancing “the future economic vitality” of the state.  The plan doesn’t even mention research and scholarship in the arts, humanities and social sciences.  The only research areas it advocates for are energy, natural resource utilization, bioscience, materials science and data management/software development. 

Moreover, what is hinted at, but not made explicit, in the research document, is that the state wishes to spend nothing of its higher education funds to support research.  All the funding is to come from external – federal or private -- sources.  The SBOE office has informed universities of this position, but not the public.  The downside of dependence on such funding sources is well-known:  it starves research in fields other than science and technology and enables private business interests to subvert the public’s control of public universities.

(It must be noted that Otter’s IGEM project, which recommends an initial state contribution of $2M to university research, is independent of the SBOE, and entirely directed toward profit-making, science/technology enterprise partnerships between private industry and higher education.)

The SBOE basically conceives of students as worker “widgets” that will feed the state’s economy.  It seems oblivious to education as a voyage of self-discovery and self-realization; as a transmitter of human culture; as an expander of horizons and multiplier of perspectives; and as the primary shaper of knowledgeable and responsible citizens.  Are we to trust the future of education in Idaho to a group of reactionary businesspersons who think that education is nothing but job training?

A final note: those familiar with the situation at ISU have an additional reason to distrust the SBOE.  In the face of what has amounted to a civil war between the faculty and the administration over the past several years, the SBOE has chosen, at every opportunity, to back ISU’s president in his attempt to impose corporate-style governance at this institution.  Surely it’s not asking too much of the SBOE, familiar as its members are with business practice, to recognize that there are times when a Board of Directors must do more than rubber-stamp the decisions of its CEO.

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