If a group of former school administrators and activists calling themselves TOADS (Totally Optimistic Advocates Dedicated to Students) is right, every time Idaho spends $2 on education, it falls another $1 behind.
In other words, year in and year out, Idaho’s education spending shortfall tops $1 billion.
Has that got your goat?
It’s supposed to.
This group wants to provoke you into storming the castle of Republican legislative indifference and reform a sales tax structure that has become overwhelmed by special interests.
Among those leading the effort is former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Robert Huntley, who has valiantly fought in the courts — so far in vain — to hold Idaho lawmakers accountable to their constitutional obligation “to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”Joining him is former Nampa School District Superintendent — and one-time West Ada School Board member — Russell Joki, who has been pressing the courts to rule against a system of “free” schools imposing additional fees on students.
But how is $1 billion even plausible?
Start with last year’s $1.9 billion from the general fund for public schools.
These TOADS say that’s $700 million less than it should be. That’s based on the work of former Idaho Chief Economist Mike Ferguson. About five years ago, Ferguson showed how a progression of tax cuts since the turn of the century had eroded public education’s share of the state’s personal income by 25 percent.
You could go higher.
The most recent census report shows Idaho allocating $7,486 per pupil — or about 41 percent below the national average. Catching up would approach $1.5 billion.
Or you could go lower.
Assume every dollar local patrons volunteer through supplemental property tax levies compensates for inadequate state support. So far, 92 of Idaho’s 115 school districts have levied $214 million, up from last year’s record of $202.2 million.
If you want to extend all-day kindergarten to every school district in the state, TOADS says that will cost another $52 million.
Nor can the state claim to be making much progress.
As they note, just covering enrollment growth and inflation requires a yearly budget increase of about 4 percent.
Last year, the state public school appropriation grew by about 6.3 percent. This year, Gov. Brad Little’s budget would reach about 4 percent more.
For higher education, the picture gets bleaker.
Huntley’s group says the current $306 million the state spends on colleges and universities falls $340 million short. Maybe that seems like a stretch because you have to go back about 40 years when institutions of higher learning claimed a substantially larger slice of the state budget
However, higher education’s share of the general fund is about a third smaller than it was even 20 years ago. In that time, lawmakers cut the budget four times in response to economic slowdowns. And the state’s overall commitment — not accounting for inflation — did not catch up with its pre-Great Recession level for nine years.
After factoring in a cumulative 3 percent base cut, Little’s budget would add only $1.2 million to colleges and universities, or about 0.4 percent. With tuition frozen, both the University of Idaho and Lewis-Clark State College are balancing budgets with staffing cuts.
So their diagnosis makes sense.
What about their remedy?
Idaho’s 55-year-old sales tax has not kept up with the advancing service sector and has taken on too many loopholes.
Huntley’s group argues that if Idaho eliminated about 78 percent of the $2.8 billion worth of exemptions, it could reduce the sales tax rate from 6 cents on the dollar to 4 cents — and still produce another $769 million. After splitting $88 million with the cities and counties, that would leave $647.8 million for education.
Broadening the sales tax base and lowering the rate is not a new idea. As Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press noted last week, an interim committee wrestled with it in 2007, but came away with only minor reforms.
More likely than not, this will be headed toward a 2022 ballot initiative campaign.
If that seems premature, consider two questions:
l According to the recent Boise State University public policy survey, 64.5 percent of Idahoans consider their schools either poor or fair. How long will they tolerate that?
l The state seems headed toward a property tax revolt, and rising supplemental levies are a factor. What happens when these tax measures become so expensive that voters begin to say no? — M.T.