From the Senate to the schools

A conversation with former Sen. Shawn Keough, the newest member of the Idaho State Board of Education

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

It seems Idaho’s longest-serving female senator won’t have to give up her passion for improving the state’s public education system anytime soon.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced Sept. 26 that he had appointed former District 1 Senator Shawn Keough to the Idaho State Board of Education, sharing in a news release that he believes she “displays the right demeanor and vision to help Idaho’s public education system serve our communities and prepare students for careers and a lifetime of learning.”

Shawn Keough. Photo by Marie-Dominique Verdier.

Keough served in the Idaho Senate from 1996 until she opted out of reelection in 2018. Now the executive director of the Associated Logging Contractors, Keough still lives in Sandpoint. 

A very busy Keough answered some questions via email for the Sandpoint Reader in between traveling for Associated Logging Contractors work and an all-day meeting of Little’s Education Task Force. (Edited lightly for clarity and length.)

Sandpoint Reader: You’ve been known to say that you pursued a legislative seat in the ’90s because you saw North Idaho being left behind in several categories, including education. What’s it like to have that come full circle and to become one of eight people who make major educational decisions for the state?

Shawn Keough: I am incredibly honored to become a member of the SBOE and appreciative of Governor Little’s confidence in my public service and experience. I’ll be stepping into a position held by Don Soltman, who resides in the Coeur d’Alene area and who has done a great job. I’ll provide a continuing voice/representation from North Idaho on the board as well as have a statewide responsibility for our public education system as a whole.

SR: How will your 20+ years in the Senate help you in the ISBOE position? On the other hand, what do you think you still need to learn?

SK: I imagine my Senate service has provided me an understanding of the policies and processes surrounding our public education system and how things work, so to speak. Knowing the legislative process will be helpful as everything the SBOE does is under the laws set by the Legislature and the rules that are ultimately approved by them as well. I have much to learn of the specific work of the SBOE as they take the policy and implement it out across the institutions and that step is not one I’ve been directly involved in. Setting policy is one thing, guidance and oversight of implementation is another. I know that a learning curve is ahead.

SR: Your husband, Mike, was a teacher and your sons both went through the public education system in Idaho. How will your personal experiences inform your work for the ISBOE?

SK: Without a doubt my personal experiences as a wife of a 35-year career public educator, the mother of two children — now grown — who went K through college in Idaho schools, along with my own experiences at NIC and Lewis-Clark State College, will definitely inform my work on the SBOE. That said, I know that these are [my] perspectives and that there are others out there that all need to be considered and balanced.

SR: What do you see as the main educational issue facing Idaho right now?

SK: My personal perspective aligns with Governor Little’s, who says: “Improving education in Idaho is my highest priority and a key factor in ensuring Idaho’s children and grandchildren have the best opportunities to stay in Idaho and for the ones who have left to choose to return.” We have a challenge retaining and recruiting the best and brightest teachers who are the key to student success in the classroom. We need to address this challenge. I also believe we need to better prepare our kids for their path in life, whether it be on to college or into a trade. And, of course, how to sustainably fund the system remains challenging, too.

SR: When we consider how to better our state, there are a variety of categories people turn to where improvements can be made. Your track record shows that you believe education is the place to start. Why is that?

SK: I truly believe that the foundation for success in life is education. Having access to learning and the fundamentals of reading, writing and math are critical components to a person’s ability to make their way in the world. Many, many studies show that those who haven’t had access to education or have not learned to read by third grade end up in our prisons or don’t have as much success as they may have otherwise. I strongly believe that commitment and investment in education pay off in the long run in less incarceration and less loss of human potential.

SR: How have you been enjoying your time away from the Legislature? Has it been strange to be away?

SK: I’ve always had a “day job” while serving in the state Senate and so I continue to work in the private sector and will even now with this appointment to the SBOE. I generally remark that I’ve simply gone from having two jobs to just having one. And, I enjoy my work with the logging and hauling contractors — they are salt-of-the-earth people who work very hard to provide raw material for the products we all use every day. I’ve also had more time with my family, especially my grandkids! There are definitely parts of being in the Legislature that I miss, but it was time for me … to step aside. I believe Senator Jim Woodward is doing a great job and represents us very well. His deep roots in our community and solid reasoning skills are great assets for us, and I am one who is appreciative that he is willing to serve.

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