The gap between Idaho’s urban school districts and its rural have-nots is about to grow even wider — thanks to Rep. Charlie Shepherd’s bill to put warm bodies behind a teacher’s desk.
Ever since then-interim Gov. Jim Risch’s 2006 tax shift undermined local tax support for schools, districts have become increasingly dependent on supplemental levies. If you’re in a urban center with abundant commercial, industrial and residential property tax wealth, you can raise substantial sums with a relatively cheap tax — allowing you to attract qualified teachers with competitive salaries.
But as the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy pointed out more than a year ago, Idaho’s richest school district can put 20 times as much property tax wealth behind each of its students compared to the state’s poorest district.
So rural districts struggle with disproportionately higher property taxes, but often fall short of the ability to match what’s offered in the cities.
Already, more than a third of the state’s school systems — virtually all in rural areas — operate on four-day weeks in order to shave costs.
Social isolation and comparatively lower wages also make it difficult to attract qualified teachers.
But rather than ramp up resources to boost those salaries, Shepherd is waving the white flag of surrender. His bill, which cleared the House last week on a 54-13 vote, would enable school districts to hire anyone who is at least 18 years old, graduated from a four-year college and passes a criminal background check.
“My hope is we’ll get members of the community to come forth ... who are qualified in their specific area,” Shepherd said. “If they come in and never thought about being a teacher before and experience it in the classroom, I hope that will inspire them and motivate them to become certified. Then we’ve elevated our teachers throughout the state.”
But consider what those districts might sacrifice if Shepherd prevails:
l Screening process — No prospective college of education enrollee gets far without a student practicum, essentially a first dive into the classroom. It’s there that many students discover whether managing children is in the cards.
l The basics — How do young minds develop? Children are not miniature adults. They process experiences differently.
How do you create a lesson plan? How do you set the pace?
What’s behind enabling the class to comprehend what’s being delivered, then engaging with the students?
What are the ins and outs of testing — such as devising questions that determine how well students are progressing? How do you avoid loaded questions? And how do you compensate for people who have difficulty taking tests?
l Juggling — In a class of 30 students, a teacher will confront any number of situations: special needs, disabilities and different learning styles. Preparatory classes are designed to enable teachers to handle several groups at once.
l Student teaching — Before he can graduate, a student takes over a class for a semester. Although the assigned teacher supervises, he gradually steps back, allowing the student to figure out his own management techniques, assessments and lessons.
l Expertise — Emerging from college with an emphasis in geography and math qualifies the applicant to teach in those fields, not a foreign language or literature, for instance.
Someone with a different set of career and life experiences could rise to the occasion. But it’s a gamble. It’s not one-size fits all.
You have no guarantee that the prospective teacher has spent any time in the classroom.
Given his academic and professional background, he may have a core competency. But managing a classroom of students does not come easily or quickly to many people.
In any event, he’s going to learn on the job — and the students are part of the experiment.
Where does Idaho’s constitutional duty to “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools” carve out an exception for students based on their ZIP codes? — M.T.