Sally Toone is Idaho’s newest Democratic legislator. Straight out of Gooding, Sally has been an educator for over 30 years and owns a family farm and cattle ranch with her family in Gooding and Camas counties.
While the GOP was quarreling amongst themselves, Sally was working with Rep. Paulette Jordan to introduce a bill that will help with the teacher shortage in our rural school districts.
New lawmaker hopes to help shape education policy
BOISE — District 26’s newest representative wants to make her mark on education policy while she’s in the Legislature.
Midway through her second week of a session where, so far, most of the headlines have been about infighting in the House Republican caucus rather than the issues the Legislature is expected to spend these three months on, Rep. Sally Toone said some aspects of her new job were what she expected, and some are less than expected.
“I’ve watched the Legislature before, from the outside looking in,” she said. “The learning curve once you’re inside is different but exciting. I consider myself adaptable and I can learn.”
Toone, a Democrat from Gooding who recently retired from her teaching career in the Wendell and Gooding school districts, declared in late 2015 that she planned to run for the seat that had been occupied for more than a decade by Donna Pence, also a Democrat and a retired teacher from Gooding.
The district, which covers all of Blaine, Camas, Gooding and Lincoln counties, leans Democratic but is one of the few where both Democrats and Republicans win legislative seats regularly — the district has also elected Republican Steve Miller three times by narrow margins, also sending him back to Boise while electing Toone at the same time.
Toone is the only new lawmaker from the Magic or Wood River valleys this year — the incumbents were re-elected for every other seat.
Toone said she has so far enjoyed working on her committees — she sits on House Education, Agriculture and Business — and learning about the new topics she will be grappling with.
“I suppose that comes from (being) an educator,” she said. “Being a teacher, you always look for new experiences to learn, and that’s how I look at it, from the eyes of an educator and a lifelong learner.”
As the session goes on, most committees will spend most of their time hearing and debating bills, but at this point in the session there aren’t many bills to work on. This is when the committees review and approve the administrative rules that state agencies prepared for them over the interim.
Toone said she is looking forward to later, when actual legislation takes up most of the Legislature’s time, and on Thursday she and Rep. Paulette Jordan, D-Plummer, two of just a few Democrats left in the Legislature who don’t represent the Boise area, unveiled the Democrats’ first major bill of the session — a proposal to pay some of the student loans of teachers who choose to work in struggling rural districts such as some of the ones Toone represents.
“Conversations need to start,” Toone said. “We’ll just keep going. It comes from my heart. Education and keeping educators in Idaho is just so valuable because we know ourselves and our rural communities are the heart of Idaho.”
Education policy is an area where Toone hopes to have an influence. She said she is interested in reviewing the new science content standards that lawmakers are going to review this year after having rejected them in 2016.
Some of what happens, she said, could depend on what happens at the national level. President-elect Donald Trump nominee to run the federal Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a strong charter school supporter whose pick has sparked concern among advocates for public schools.
“I want to be an active voice in those conversations,” Toone said.
Toone also said she is looking forward to upcoming debates about health care, another issue whose outcome this session will depend largely on what happens in Washington, D.C., with the Republicans’ plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and what they replace it with.
“That will be an interesting conversation,” she said. “On the floor, I’m excited to see the debates. Can’t say I’ll participate a whole lot, but I’ll learn and listen … and if the opportunity comes we need to speak up for our district.”
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has said he wants to focus on education this year and has made a number of proposals to strengthen the state’s higher education system. Lawmakers are also expected to fund the third year of the “career ladder” plan to raise teacher pay.
Teacher evaluations are another issue lawmakers will be grappling with. Last last year, news came out of an independent audit of 225 randomly sampled teacher evaluations from 53 school districts and charter schools from the 2014-15 school year that found 99 percent of them weren’t done correctly. The Department of Education received the report in July but didn’t share it with lawmakers or the public. It was first reported by Idaho Education News last month.
Toone said that while it is unfortunate the state sat on the data, she questions the validity of the finding that most of the evaluations were flawed. She thinks the problem was one of communication with the school districts.
“As a teacher, when all the class misses a question, you have to question whether you presented the material correctly,” she said.
Toone said the Danielson model of teacher evaluations the state uses is a complicated one, but she favors continuing to use it because the state has already spent money on it. She favors picking eight or 10 or the 22 components and using those.
“Districts can have some local control, and the state looks at specific observable pieces,” she said.