Remember the 2021 Idaho Legislature as a huge opportunity wasted.
For years, lawmakers have been all too eager to point out the $100 million annual increases they’ve funneled into public schools in the years following the voters’ rejection of their draconian Luna Laws agenda.
Modest at best, these improvements remained inadequate. Idaho was still digging out of the hole it dug for itself by cutting education budgets during the Great Recession. Meanwhile, other states continued to make their own investments. Idaho found itself at the rear of a relay race. As hard as the Gem State might run, it could not close the distance.
Lawmakers convened in January atop a surprisingly robust economy. People and businesses were flocking to Idaho. Once the state emerged from its COVID-19 restrictions in the spring and summer, elected leadership and public health agencies generally employed a light touch — certainly less restrictive than their neighbors such as Oregon and Washington.
That means Idaho was swimming in enough cash to move its schools a few notches ahead.
Instead, about $382.9 million of that money will go into another round of tax cuts for wealthy Idahoans and corporations this year. Every year thereafter, it will drain $171 million out of the treasury.
Elsewhere, lawmakers quadrupled the share of sales tax dollars that will go toward roads and bridges. That locks in transportation as a competitor for sales tax dollars that Idaho voters once earmarked exclusively for public schools. This decision may be the most consequential facing education since then-interim Gov. Jim Risch engineered the tax shift that undermined stable, equalized property tax support for schools in 2006. And it’s all being done because Idaho lawmakers prefer not to challenge the state’s long-haul trucking industry to pay its fair share for the wear and tear it inflicts on Idaho’s roads and bridges.
So here’s where we stand — dead last.
As the National Education Association noted last week, no state spends less per pupil. Even with a slight bump in spending, the $9,388 Idaho devoted to each pupil’s instruction during the 2019-20 school year put the state about 40 percent behind the national average. Elsewhere in the region:
l Montana — 38th.
l Nevada — 45th.
l Oregon — 20th.
l Utah — 50th.
l Washington — 13th.
l Wyoming — 10th.
When it comes to paying competitive teacher salaries, the picture isn’t much brighter. The Legislature was making progress. Last year, Idaho’s average salary of $52,875 ranked the state at 39th, putting it slightly ahead of Montana, whose average salary of $52,135 ranked it 40th.
l Nevada — 28th.
l Oregon — 13th.
l Utah — 31st.
l Washington — sixth.
l Wyoming — 20th.
But the NEA report notes Idaho regressed during the current school year. Average teacher salaries in the Gem State dropped on average 2 percent, while salaries elsewhere in the region rose.
By any reasonable standard, you have a surplus if there’s money left over after all the obligations are covered.
In Idaho’s case, that’s just not so. Only because the schools have been neglected is there extra cash around.
As a result, you can expect the reliance on supplemental property taxes that compensate schools for inadequate state support to expand. With that will come an ever-widening gap between communities with a substantial tax base and those areas without resources.
Morale among teachers no doubt improved since 2013 when the Office of Performance Evaluations reported “a strong undercurrent of despair among teachers who seem to perceive a climate that disparages their efforts and belittles their contributions.” But it can’t help when salaries are stalled in the name of cutting taxes on the rich while avoiding a hard conversation with the trucking industry.
Don’t be surprised if the state can’t afford to compete for experienced, talented teachers.
None of which is going to preclude legislators from congratulating themselves for a job well done for public schools.
This year, it just rings more hollow than usual. — M.T.