Improving education outcomes is worthy of debate. It is perhaps the most worthy debate we can have in Idaho right now.
For a whole host of reasons, I’m not sure I’ll ever be persuaded that that solution is to cut a check of taxpayer dollars to send a student to a private school. But I’m willing to listen to data, facts and results from other states.
The Mountain States Policy Center, a new “free-market-oriented think tank” based in Idaho, promises nonpartisan, data-driven, research-based information intended to inform public policy in Idaho.
Members of our editorial board recently met with some of their team: Chris Cargill, president and CEO of the center; board chairman Ken Dey and board member John Otter, of Simplot; and board member Bill Baldwin, of Hayden.
The center will weigh in on a wide range of issues, including health care, transportation, taxation, government transparency, even agriculture and the environment. They’ve already come out with guns blazing on so-called “school choice.”
Unfortunately, the policy center has parroted the tired slogan, “fund students, not systems,” a mantra used by the anti-public education crowd that fails to recognize that a system — well-funded — is needed to educate students and that “maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools” is literally a legislative mandate in Idaho’s constitution (emphasis mine).
During our meeting, the Mountain States Policy Center folks said they’re not against public education.
“We still value public education,” Dey said. “We don’t want to destroy public education. But perhaps there are new ways to do it, new ways that the data can back it up and say can we still give choice and still keep public education funded and still give people that opportunity?”
Competition is good, and the free market is excellent at some things — terrible at other things, such as protecting the environment. As a business owner who faced fierce competition every day, I can attest that competition made me better, and forced me to innovate and work harder to make our business better.
I wish we could inject a little bit of a competitive, free-market mentality into the education system to come up with better solutions, more innovation and better outcomes for everyone. But having a total free-market private education system would be a disaster of winners and losers based on wealth.
That’s the whole point of public education — it’s supposed to be the great equalizer, regardless of your socioeconomic status.
But can we do both? Can we improve the public education system and still expand choices for students whose needs are not being met by public schools? Perhaps. I’d rather work on improving public education, but I’m open to ideas.
At least the Mountain States Policy Center promises to present those ideas in a noncombative, nonpolitical way, as opposed to another “free market think tank” in Idaho, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which often devolves into sophomoric culture war attacks, earning them the apt description “conflict entrepreneurs.”
The Idaho Freedom Foundation, too, is in favor of “school choice,” but they go about it by vilifying public education, calling schools “government indoctrination camps,” demonizing teachers and fomenting unfounded fears over “critical race theory,” “critical social justice” and “indoctrination.” If you disagree with them, well, you’re a “leftist,” “socialist” or any other number of names they choose to hurl over their social media channels.
They’re toxic for Idaho, and I’ll be happy to have an alternative that’s grounded in civility and reason.
“We’ll be looking at the facts that are out there, and we’re willing to have a debate on it,” Dey said. “I think that’s what’s missing. And so much of this process is there’s no opportunity to debate. … I mean, that’s the whole point of having policy groups, so that we can have that debate and not get into the name calling and the back and forth.”
The policy center is a nonprofit 501(c)3, the same tax-exempt category that allows dark money to infiltrate state politics through anonymous donations. It’s also affiliated with the State Policy Network and American Legislative Exchange Council, both associated with injecting conservative and libertarian ideals into state legislatures and putting corporate interests at the front of the line.
Cargill said the research and the fundraising branches of the organization are completely separate and one never influences the other.
“There is an intellectual integrity piece that we want to make sure that we’re keeping,” Cargill said. “That the money that comes into the organization does not fund the research; it funds the organization, and they’re completely separate. And a lot of folks might agree with us on one policy and disagree with us on another policy, and that’s totally fine. But we’re keeping them completely separate.”
I’ll give this group the benefit of the doubt for now, but I’m sure I’ll find myself wondering at some point whether a policy position is based on a genuine desire for positive outcomes for all Idahoans or whether it’s motivated by the beneficial outcome for a select group.
Cutting corporate taxes benefits corporations, but is underfunding public education good for Idaho?
I’ll probably have reservations about whether their data and studies are cherry-picked solely for the purpose of supporting an ideological position — such as school vouchers or a flat income tax. The question will be whether their reports are real policy studies or mere advocacy on behalf of an interested party that would benefit from legislative action.
That said, if they have studies that show proven successes, by all means we should take those into consideration.
Mountain States is an offshoot of the Washington Policy Center, where Cargill was the Eastern Washington director. A look at its website shows a lot of anti-public education content, but also articles and research on payroll taxes, gas tax, property tax protection for homeowners, government reform, agriculture, health care and more.
“The need is really clear not only in Idaho, but the rest of the Mountain states, that we need a public policy research organization that is going to be nonpartisan, that’s going to be independent,” Cargill said. “That certainly will have an ideological point of view, and the ideological point of view is that the free market is the best way to advance and improve the human condition in our region.”
If their motivation is to have better outcomes for all Idahoans, I’ll take them at their word. For now.