Throwing money at it won’t solve Idaho’s education problems.
How many times have you heard that?
It’s nonsense, of course.
If anything, Idaho has accomplished just the reverse — disinvesting from education, just as other states continue to spend more.
Consider the spate of numbers unearthed by Kevin Richert at Idaho Education News.
Topping the list is the latest Education Week ratings.
In terms of financial commitment to its schools, Idaho was ranked dead last.
How it got there, however, took some work.
According to Education Week, some states are bad at overall funding and others fail in distributing money fairly to rich and poor schools alike.
Alaska, for instance, comes in seventh in overall spending, but last in equity. Florida is just the opposite, 45th in spending but best in equity.
Only Idaho fails miserably at both.
It’s third from the bottom in how much it spends. In terms of how it allocates the money, Idaho is fourth from the bottom.
How did that happen?
Ask Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho.
During his short stint as Idaho’s interim governor in 2006, Risch pushed through a tax shift to help his corporate cronies.
But he crippled Idaho schools.
Risch eliminated the property tax that supported public schools with $248.3 million and replaced it with a sales tax increase worth only $210 million.
It got worse. The property tax Risch eliminated was equalized. In other words, a community with a small tax base tended to get more state money to help keep up with wealthier communities.
Some of Idaho’s schools have 30 times more property tax wealth behind each student than the state’s poorest communities. That means wealthy patrons — usually those living in urban centers — can raise more money more easily than those living in modest towns, often in rural settings.
Since the Risch tax shift took effect, Idaho patrons have turned increasingly to local supplemental property taxes. Last year, the statewide total crested at $202 million. So the gap between rich and poor schools has widened.
Not that any of them are doing that well. According to the latest Census Bureau report, Idaho allocates $7,486 per pupil, ranking it 50th and ahead only of Utah at $7,179.
But behind that ranking is something even more disturbing. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, the amount Idaho spends on each of its school children is 11 percent less than it was before the Great Recession began in 2008, after adjusting for inflation. Only seven states did worse. On average, spending per pupil in the U.S. is about 2 percent greater, inflation included.
How did that happen?
For starters, then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and the GOP-led Legislature took the unprecedented step of balancing the recession-battered state budget on the backs of school children.
And when the economy recovered, the GOP went on cutting taxes — mostly to benefit corporations and wealthy families. For instance, in 2018, lawmakers insisted on conforming the state income tax to changes made just weeks earlier at the federal level.
It was supposed to cost $105 million. It may be closer to $170 million.
Since 2000, the Legislature’s tax-cutting mania has sliced more than a quarter of public education’s traditional share of Idaho resources.
National statistics are one thing.
But what’s been your experience?
How many rural Idaho schools are operating on a four-day week just to save a few dollars? By last count, 45 of Idaho’s 115 school districts take Fridays off.
How easy is it to get someone to teach in Idaho for what the state is willing to pay? Idaho has ramped up spending enough to move its average salary from 44th to 41st. But other states — notably Washington — are moving even faster. No wonder Idaho is losing 10 percent of its teachers every year. Most are not retiring. They’re either leaving the profession or moving on to schools in other states that will pay them more.
Which brings us to Gov. Brad Little’s newly formed education task force, Our Kids, Idaho’s Future. Little has charged that group with designing the next round of educational reforms.
That panel had better come up with more than simply painting over the cracks in Idaho’s crumbling foundation. — M.T.