The Perfect Enemy | Idaho view: Idaho’s education hole runs deeper than you think
September 29, 2022

Idaho view: Idaho’s education hole runs deeper than you think

Idaho view: Idaho’s education hole runs deeper than you think  Times-News

Read Time:5 Minute

The worst aspect of last week’s special legislative session was not how it doubled down on income tax cuts for Idaho’s corporations and investor class — without any help for ordinary families struggling to pay property and sales taxes.

Nor was it the cynical political ploy to undermine Reclaim Idaho’s popular ballot measure, which would have propped up Idaho’s chronically underfunded schools with $323.5 million paid by reversing some of the tax benefits corporations and the wealthy have enjoyed.

What ought to worry you is how Gov. Brad Little’s $410 million education package may encourage state lawmakers to declare victory and move on to something else.

The fact is $410 million — while a lot of money — is a mere Band-Aid when it comes to rescuing Idaho education from the deep hole Republican governors and lawmakers have been digging these past two decades. That’s how the state wound up with the lowest per-pupil expenditures in the nation and a teacher shortage aggravated by salaries that are not competitive with those offered in surrounding states.

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The hole could be as deep as $1.2 billion.

So says a group of education advocates that counts among its ranks former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Robert Huntley, former Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Jerry Evans, former Boise School District Superintendent Don Coberly, former Nampa School District Superintendent and one-time West Ada School Board member Russell Joki and former “teacher of the year” Cindy Wilson, who ran unsuccessfully for state schools superintendent four years ago.

Banded together under the banner Totally Optimistic Advocates Dedicated to Students (TOADS), they’ve outlined the gaps that remain in the public schools:

Between requiring school construction measures to pass by a supermajority — including a two-thirds standard for bonds — and a paucity of state support for facilities, Idaho is second to none in how difficult it becomes to replace or upgrade buildings. An Office of Performance Evaluations study found the state needed $847 million just to bring structures within 77 of Idaho’s 115 school districts up to a level of “good,” not “perfect.” The true figure is closer to $1 billion.

But Tuesday’s elections didn’t offer much cause for optimism.

Coeur d’Alene’s 10-year, $80 million plant facility levy won majority support, but not the 55% required.

Middleton’s $59.4 million package got 54%. It needed two-thirds.

Vallivue’s $55 million bond issue fell about 0.7% short of achieving the two-thirds threshold.

Likewise in Ririe, a $1.5 million bond got 64%, just shy of the two-thirds mandate.

Getting a good start on the backlog would require about $500 million for local construction grants, TOADS says.

Teacher shortage

In its survey of more than 90 Idaho school districts earlier this year, the Idaho State Board of Education found more than 700 teacher vacancies went unfilled by people who had earned a teaching certificate. Inadequate compensation is driving younger teachers out of the profession. Veteran teachers have been overwhelmed by COVID-19 and a hostile political environment.

TOADS recommends maintaining the $1,000 bonus educators received through Idaho’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act. It costs $36.7 million. TOADS wants to add to that another $50 million for teacher recruitment and retention.

At 8.5%, rising costs are draining the state’s $2.2 billion public school budget of $195 million a year.

Property taxes

Not only have stingy state appropriations driven local schools’ reliance on supplemental property tax levies to an all-time high of $218.2 million, but it has widened the gap between wealthy communities that can more easily raise those funds and poorer, largely rural school districts that cannot.

Says TOADS: Why not use state funds to “pay off” those levies?

As eye-popping as $1.2 billion may seem, it was not insurmountable given the state’s $2 billion surplus — until Little and lawmakers began depleting it with a $500 million one-time income tax rebate and another $161 million in permanent tax cuts.

But like any alternative view, this idea could not even get a hearing. Little called the session. He held virtual control over the agenda.

His message to the Legislature, education advocates and the public in general: Take it or leave it.

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