Idaho lawmakers deserved enormous credit for producing the biggest public education budget in this century.

But it won’t be enough.

Later this year, Gem State voters may have the opportunity to take matters into their own hands by expanding school funding even more dramatically.

Even that won’t be enough, however.

For proof, look no further than the latest rankings of the states by the National Education Association. In short, it reveals how deep a hole Idaho has got itself into.

For the 2020-21 school year — the last one on record — Idaho retained its status as the state that allocates the least amount of money per student — $8,376. Coming one space ahead of it is Utah at $8,968.

Among Idaho’s neighbors, however, the gap grows astonishingly:

l Montana — 31st at $12,597.

l Nevada — 47th at $10,200.

l Oregon — 20th at $14,400.

l Washington — 15th at $17,193.

l Wyoming — 11th at $18,385.

The national average is $14,360.

On the ground, that disparity shows up in how much Idaho schools depend on local supplemental property tax support and how many of Idaho rural school districts wind up operating four days a week to scrape up some savings.

On a larger level, however, imagine trying to recruit teachers to a state with the seventh largest class loads in the country — and the lowest pay among its neighbors.

Idaho’s average 17.7 students per teacher is much better than Oregon, which has the fifth largest classrooms with 18.2 students per teacher; Nevada, ranked third highest in the country with 21.5 students per teacher; or Utah, which comes in second highest with 22.2 students per teacher.

But it’s far behind Montana’s 13.7 students per teacher, ranking it 34th; 11th-ranked Washington with 16.9 students per teacher or Wyoming, which comes in 39th with 12.4 students assigned to each teacher.

At least teachers in neighboring states — regardless of class loads — get better compensation.

In the last school year on record, Idaho lost ground. The average salary of $51,817 comes in 45th, compared to:

l Montana — 40th at $53,133.

l Nevada — 27th at $58,167.

l Oregon —14th at $68,565.

l Utah — 29th at $57,226.

l Washington — sixth at $79,388.

l Wyoming — 22nd at $60,234.

Idaho might make some progress when the newest numbers arrive. After all, the state improved overall spending by 11%, expanding the amount of state support for teacher salaries by 7%, significantly enhanced health insurance coverage and invested in all-day kindergarten.

Should Reclaim Idaho’s Quality Education Act initiative get on the Nov. 8 election ballot — which seems likely — and then passes, a combination of higher corporate taxes and higher income taxes on individuals earning more than $250,000 and families making more than $500,000 would add another $323 million.

Just the same, other states also have experienced a boom in tax revenues and have funneled the extra money into their schools. Nobody is standing still, allowing Idaho to catch up.

At the same time, inflation and enrollment growth have been eating away at many of the gains Idaho has been trying to make.

Put it this way: Assume the initiative passes, giving Idaho schools one of the best years for funding on record. At best, the state’s per pupil expenditure will rise into the status shared by two states tied for 48th — Arizona and Mississippi. At worst, it may only achieve the distinction of rising above next-to-last Utah.

One good year won’t turn this around.

Idaho’s politicians will have to stop their default position of cutting taxes first before considering schools.

They’ll have to end driving teachers to distraction with conspiracy theories that young minds are getting a classroom indoctrination with leftist ideologies.

And they’ll have to quit pandering to an Idaho Freedom Foundation that wants to abolish public schools altogether.

However long this journey, let it begin. — M.T.

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