Idaho poses a jobs riddle. Our unemployment rate (2.9 percent) is among the best 10 states. But our median household income is in the bottom 10. While nearly everyone can find a job, we earn 10 percent less than the national average.
Employers with skilled, high-paying jobs are reluctant to locate or expand here because they can’t find workers. Paradoxically, that means employees are forced to look elsewhere or take jobs they aren’t trained for.
Education is the answer to this job riddle. As a candidate for governor, Tommy Ahlquist promises to create line of sight between Idaho kids and Idaho jobs by engaging industry with our schools. As a scientist and engineer, I’ve seen industry engagement work firsthand.
Meeting mentors through the Idaho Science and Aerospace Scholars program, FIRST Robotics Competition, and the Idaho Science & Engineering Fairs shows kids they can enter exciting fields without leaving the state.
In Utah a decade ago, students agonized over whether to stay home or leave for a good job. Today, they can have both, because our neighbor state is experiencing a high-tech renaissance. Industry leaders in Utah say businesses move and grow there because 25,000 well-prepared university graduates enter the workforce every year.
But industry/education engagement is about more than college graduates in our urban centers.
Tommy told me about his travels throughout Idaho. One afternoon in rural Idaho, he’ll meet with a plant owner struggling to fill good manufacturing jobs, a mayor lamenting a generation of kids who must leave to find work, and a school principal working hard to motivate students who lack education role models. The jobs are different than in Idaho’s larger cities, but the opportunity is the same: kids that see how education leads to good jobs in their communities will be more successful in school and after graduation.
Tommy’s Conservative Blueprint for an Even Better Idaho doesn’t force a one-size-fits-all solution on these different areas. Instead, he clearly defines student achievement as reading proficiency by third grade, math proficiency by eighth grade, high school graduation, and career readiness.
After that, he’ll empower local educators and communities: reducing by 25 percent the number of state mandates to local districts, increasing school choice options, and improving coordination and effectiveness between the State Board of Education and the Department of Education.
Education is the largest slice of Idaho’s budget and the most important function we entrust solely to state government. Yet we’ve seen politicians in Boise abdicate their responsibility—punting, instead, to committees and task forces.
I’ve seen Tommy Ahlquist find the common ground in a group of education wonks with strong disagreements. He was an ER doc for 18 years who’s created successful businesses through strong leadership. He’ll be there when a leader is so badly needed to save local districts and educators from years of uncertainty.
Governor Otter established the Higher Education Task Force in 2016 and delegated his responsibility to provide a vision for Idaho’s colleges. The committee was staffed by many accomplished Idahoans with the best of intentions. But without executive leadership, the process has devolved as members express different opinions about what they agreed to and the legislature is presented with conflicting testimony. Tommy will not sit on the sidelines for the important work of planning Idaho’s education future.
And Tommy’s style is not to push to a solution by steamrolling others. Instead, he believes that for every problem in education, someone in the school knows the solution. Tommy knows that if we can build trust within our parents, schools, in our administrations, and at the state level –
that someone with the solution can be heard. The purpose of our bureaucracy is to identify their success and help scale it up to entire schools, districts, and the state. Not to push down confusing and conflicting mandates.
The last time we elected a new governor, he served 12 years. This election will set the direction of education in Idaho for years to come. We don’t need to keep sending back career politicians worried about taking a stand. I urge you to support Tommy Ahlquist for an even better Idaho.
Josh Johnston is an artificial intelligence scientist in Boise, Idaho. In addition to degrees in engineering and robotics from Duke University and Carnegie Mellon University, he is currently pursuing a doctorate in computing from Boise State University.