Ending up at the bottom of the national heap may be as good as it gets for Idaho’s schools.
That is, unless Idahoans take charge.
The latest evidence comes courtesy of the National Education Association’s state rankings:
l Per-pupil expenditures — Idaho comes in last among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, behind Utah (50th), Nevada (44th), Montana (29th), Oregon (22nd), Washington (14th) and Wyoming (12th).
l Teacher salaries — Idaho’s average compensation rose slightly to 41st, putting it narrowly ahead of Montana (42nd) but still at a competitive disadvantage against Utah (36th), Nevada (25th), Wyoming (20th), Oregon (13th) and Washington (seventh).
l Classroom size — Not only are Idaho’s teachers paid less, but they’re assigned comparatively more students. Idaho has the sixth highest number of students per teacher. That’s better than Nevada, which is ranked highest in the nation, Utah, which comes in second, and Oregon, which was ranked fifth highest.
Elsewhere in the West, Washington is ranked ninth, Montana is 34th and Wyoming is 41st.
That snapshot was taken in the 2018-19 school year, just as Idaho was emerging from school budget cuts imposed during the Great Recession.
The Legislature’s commitment to improving teacher pay was gaining ground — although it was always more aspirational than accomplished. GOP lawmakers and governors continued in their zeal for cutting taxes, most notably in 2018 with income tax breaks for corporations and wealthier families. Schools never quite made up for enrollment increases and inflation, which is why so many of them resorted to record-breaking supplemental property tax levies as well as four-day weeks.
But the back-to-back budget boosts conveyed a sense of hope that progress was inevitable.
Until, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the economy stalled.
First, Idaho school budgets lost 1 percent — or about $19 million — that may or may not be backfilled with federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money. Then Gov. Brad Little imposed a plan to cut schools by another 5 percent — or $99 million — thereby erasing the gains public education had been promised in the 2020-21 budget.
Who’s to say if that is the end of it?
The economy remains unsteady amid rising COVID-19 infections in Idaho, leaving tax revenues under a cloud.
Supplemental levies are failing, including West Ada and the Grangeville-based Mountain View school districts.
And reopening schools during a pandemic won’t be cheap. The Association of School Business Officials International and the School Superintendents Association estimate the average-sized school district — with about 3,659 students — will spend almost $1.8 million on everything from hand sanitizers to additional staff.
This much you can count on: Unlike previous generations of Idaho leaders, this current crop will not spare public education from holdbacks or budget reversals.
If anything, the Legislature that convenes in January will be even more conservative than the body responsible for slashing public schools for the first time in Idaho’s history a decade ago.
All of which casts Reclaim Idaho’s latest ballot measure in a new light.
After successfully passing a Medicaid expansion program during the 2018 election, the group next proposed plans to raise $170 million to $200 million for Idaho’s schools. Restoring tax rates on corporations and people earning higher incomes — above $250,000 for an individual or more than $500,000 on a married couple — seemed like a tall order in a conservative state.
At the time, it was billed as an investment. By devoting more resources toward competitive teacher salaries, school supplies and career technical courses, the Gem State could finally leapfrog out of the nation’s educational basement.
Now, the slogan is less “Improve our Schools,” and more like “Save our Schools.” Much of the new money would merely restore what’s already been lost.
Organizers suspended their drive to secure the more than 55,000 signatures of registered voters required to get on the ballot during Little’s stay-at-home order last spring. A federal judge has given them another 48 days to qualify the measure. Having prevailed in the appellate courts, Reclaim Idaho intends to resume gathering signatures — although the state vows to fight all the way to the Supreme Court.
If Idahoans think they, rather than the Legislature, should have the last word about the future of their schools, they had better take a good look at Reclaim Idaho’s proposal. — M.T.