Hartgen: Teacher Debt Program Would Duplicate Feds Tax Relief
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Hartgen: Teacher Debt Program Would Duplicate Feds Tax Relief

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It’s fall again so we expect to see the usual pie-in-the-sky ideas from the minority party on how, by just penciling in more money from the state (that’s you, taxpayers) on a social issue, it will just get better. Ah, if it were that simple.

The most recent idea from the Dems (but not a new one) would be to wipe way student loan obligations, — ala Bernie Sanders/Paulette Jordan “free education” fashion — with the stroke of a pen for teachers who agree to teach in Idaho’ rural schools.

The proponents, both former teachers but not from tiny districts, argue that this would be an economic benefit to rural school districts. They also pan their Republican legislative colleagues who they say have “refused to make this necessary investment in Idaho’s teachers.”

Would that it were true. But it’s not. Here are some inconvenient truths (Thanks, Al Gore.) about education spending in Idaho:

One. Idaho’s investment in education is already continuous and sizeable. Over the past six years (from 2013-2019), Idaho has increased education spending by at least $100 million every year, (Idaho Budget, Fiscal Facts, 2019) with the 2020 budget proposal in the same range. Over almost 30 years, from 1990, Idaho’ school budget has grown almost 500 percent.

Much of that money has gone to improving teacher salaries, who have never taken home more money than they’re doing right now. The median elementary school teacher pay in Southern Idaho is now over $50,000; the median for secondary teachers is over $60,000. (Idaho Dept. of Labor stats, Oct. 2019).

Two. Classroom teaching positions are being filled, but by people entering teaching after other careers, and often with degrees in other fields. The proponents call these new teachers “unlicensed” but that’s not so either. They gain alternative certification through a specific route, and they’re licensed to teach. CSI’s program in in this area has jumped from under 20 to over 80 prospective new teachers in just one year.

Nor are Idaho teachers leaving in droves for other state, as is claimed by the teachers’ union. Indeed, surveys show that most Idaho teachers are here by choice not coercion, love their jobs, love the kids they teach and appreciate the community support they receive.

Three. A “debt-reduction” plan is already available to teachers who decide to teach in a rural or poor school. It’s a federal student loan reduction program that’s been in place for decades. It already does exactly what’s envisioned; it reduces student loans for teachers who work in rural, deprived or other qualified communities. https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/teacher. Oddly, the proponents of an additional state program didn’t mention this in-place program at all. Guess it doesn’t fit their “woe-is-us-give-us-more” teacher narrative.

Nor do proponents give any estimate of the potential cost to taxpayers of wiping out teacher debt. Nada. Nothing. Hey, money grows on trees if you’ve got something new and shiny you want to give a certain group but want others (that would be you, dear taxpayers) to pay for it.

Four. The “Teacher Debt Wipe Out” (No, it’s not a newly-discovered Beach Boys song) has failed to gain legislative traction because it’s not good public policy. Rather, it’s really nothing more than a goodie item to the teachers’ union, the Idaho Education Association. Most legislators didn’t fall off the sugar beet truck last week; they can spot a “gimme” pretty well, which is what this is.

Five. Then, there’s the basic fairness issue. The proposal doesn’t help the many teachers who worked their way through college without substantial debt and are now employed. Are they less worthy? Nor does it help people in other careers, such as law enforcement, agriculture, social work, or business, you name it.

These hard-working Idahoans have student loans too, last we checked. Surely, we don’t want to create an unfair system in which one profession with a powerful union gets a “bennie” while others can’t qualify for because they chose other career paths.

In short, this idea would be an unfair and probably expensive “carve out” in career selection, and hasn’t advanced in the Legislature because, well, it’ a perk, pure and simple.

Idaho citizens appreciate their teachers and show that through their regular tax commitments for salaries, benefits, generally good working conditions and the like. Wiping out teacher debt by state funding should be DOA in Boise, a surfboard “wipe out” which never catches the California wave.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee. Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of the new book “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” This column was first published in www.idahopoliticsweekly.com. He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com

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Idaho’s structure of electing governors and LG’s completely separately — different from many states which bind them together — allows for the office holders to come from different points of view.

For future historians and artists who'll chronicle today's health and economic crisis, one humble item will stand out as the chief cultural emblem of the times: wearing a mask. Or not.

A small outbreak of coronavirus at a Fry Foods plant in Weiser gives a prime example of the importance of testing for COVID-19. More than that, it represents a warning shot across the bow of potential pitfalls if we don’t reopen our economy the right way.

As we tiptoe through Stage 2 of Gov. Brad Little’s phased reopening plan and approach a more robust Stage 3, it’s going to become even more important that we take the necessary steps to prevent future outbreaks.

And there will be future outbreaks.

The fact remains that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is still out there. It’s ready to strike again, and without a vaccine, it remains a potentially destructive and fatal disease.

Aggressive and quick testing remains one of the key elements — perhaps the most important element — of controlling outbreaks at this point.

Fry Foods offers an early case study.

The Weiser food processing plant employs 260 people to make onion rings and other food products. It shut down earlier this month when at least seven employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

Fry Foods initially didn’t test all 260 employees at the Weiser facility — only the 50 or 60 who likely came in contact with the employees who tested positive. Other employees were able to get tested on their own.

The Idaho Bureau of Laboratories (state run-laboratories) tested all that they had the capacity to do in one day, according to Kelly Petroff, director of communications for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The state lab can do about has a testing capacity of approximately 200 tests per day.

“We are not prepared to handle this,” Doug Wold, human resources manager for Fry Foods, told the Idaho Statesman, referring to the lack of coordinated response. “If you don’t have an employer who’s willing to be proactive, we’re just going to fail.”

Fortunately, Crush the Curve Idaho, a private, business-led initiative established during the outbreak to increase testing, stepped in and tested every employee at Fry Foods.

By Tuesday of this week, 20 employees — about 8% of the plant’s workforce — had tested positive for the coronavirus, along with at least two of their family members. Nearly all were asymptomatic.

RAPID-RESPONSE TESTING

That’s what needs to happen: rapid-response testing. If you have an outbreak at your workplace, get everyone tested. For those who test positive, keep them home and isolated. For those who test negative, they can keep on working and you’re back in business.

When the outbreak hit Fry Foods, company officials made the decision to shut the plant down.

Without adequate testing, that’s unfortunately the right thing to do. Without testing, you have no idea whether you have seven infected employees, 70 or 270.

We applaud Fry Foods company officials for making the tough call to shut down, even though they were given the green light by the Southwest District Health Department to resume operations.

Coronavirus is stealthy. A person can carry coronavirus longer without symptoms, potentially spreading to others unwittingly. Some people who carry coronavirus have no symptoms at all.

We are encouraged that Crush the Curve Idaho stepped up and stepped in here.

But Idaho needs a more concerted and organized plan to do rapid-response testing.

We are a fragmented health system. Health providers include Saint Alphonsus, St. Luke’s, Primary Health, Saltzer, among others. Then think about all the entities who pay for health care: Blue Cross of Idaho, Regence BlueShield, PacificSource, SelectHealth, etc. Throw in Medicare, Medicaid and those who are uninsured.

Even our own government health management system is fragmented, with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and seven independent health districts not operated by the state.

And, in the case of Fry Foods, situated in a city bordering Oregon, workers were from two states.

NO COORIDINATED EFFORTS

No wonder Fry Foods officials were at a loss for where to turn for help. Without some sort of coordinated effort to test all employees and somehow pay for those tests, shutting down the plant was the best option.

It’s worth noting that the Fry Foods employee who initially had coronavirus was at a family gathering of a larger number than outlined in the governor’s reopening plan and was with visitors from out of state, two violations of the governor’s guidelines. That’s why we have the guidelines, and that’s why it’s important to follow the guidelines. Otherwise, this is what you get: an outbreak that shuts down an entire food manufacturing plant.

Unfortunately, shutting down operations every time there’s an outbreak is not going to get the job done.

And there will be more outbreaks as we reopen our economy, reopen factories and workplaces.

Idaho has a lot to be optimistic about, and we have a golden opportunity to lead the nation in reopening our economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. We have had relatively few cases (around 2,300) and few deaths (77). Our early efforts to shut down parts of our social interactions and Little’s quick call to issue a statewide stay-home order clearly have paid off. Idahoans’ adherence to the stay-home order has helped to flatten the curve and control the number of new cases. Residents and businesses, alike, have done their part to make this happen.

Our hope is that Idaho can chug along through the stages of reopening. Our fear is that if we don’t do this the right way, we’ll have a surge and we’ll be back to a statewide stay-home order. Nobody wants that.

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