If you want a yardstick of how badly Idaho’s Legislature has failed its duty to public education, look no further than the tax burden local patrons are shouldering.
According to Idaho Education News’ Kevin Richert, 93 of Idaho’s 115 school districts are now raising $202.2 million in supplemental property taxes —up from $194.7 million last year.
Voters agree to tax themselves, but to do otherwise would condemn their children to suffer under Idaho’s inadequate public school funding. All of which tells you there’s nothing supplemental about these levies. They do not pay for extras. They cover the basics.
How is that even possible?
Didn’t lawmakers just spend another $100 million on public schools?
Yes, but that was only after Idaho’s leaders dug themselves deeply into a hole.
As former chief economist Mike Ferguson documented, Republican governors and legislators since the turn of the century have been far more committed to cutting taxes than providing for K-12. At one point, Ferguson concluded public education’s traditional share of Idaho’s resources declined 25 percent — which would translate into about $700 million a year.
Then came the Great Recession, when lawmakers balanced the books by cutting spending. It would take them seven years just to restore public school budgets to pre-recessionary levels. Even now, educators say the state has not made up for inflation and enrollment growth.
Moreover, much of the new money is tied up in legislative earmarks for such things as the teacher career ladder program. Should a school want to update its curriculum, buy new textbooks or keep the buses from breaking down, it must rely on its own patrons.
Even this year, lawmakers could have done more. Instead, they choose to divert about $104.5 million into tax cuts for Idaho’s wealthiest individuals and corporations.
It gets worse.
Before then-Gov. Jim Risch wrecked the system in 2006, Idaho imposed $260 million in maintenance and operation property tax levies. At the time, 59 school districts also raised $79 million in supplemental levies.
His plan removed the M&O levy and replaced it with an extra cent of sales tax — then valued at $210 million. A penny of sales tax now generates $248.3 million.
If you suspect the rising supplemental tax and sales tax charges have wiped out any gains Risch’s tax shift delivered, you may be right.
But it’s also expanded the gap between haves and have-nots.
Those maintenance and operation levies were equalized, which meant they sought to compensate for differences between schools with modest property tax bases, primarily small and rural, and those that could draw upon more resources, usually larger urban districts.
By one measure, Idaho’s richest school district can place 30 times more property wealth behind each of its students than can Idaho’s poorest district. Or, as the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy noted, the same tax in Blaine County generates 13 times more money than it does in Blackfoot.
That’s why, as the Center for Fiscal Policy reported, Idaho’s education funding gap can range between $17,300 and $6,200 per pupil.
Some of Idaho’s children rely solely on what the state of Idaho is willing to provide.
Others draw upon property owners who endure harsh rates just to keep their children from falling too far behind.
And then there are those lucky few parents who for a modest tax charge can afford to give their students an even better opportunity.
This is not what Idaho’s founders envisioned.
They clearly spelled out a legislative “duty” to “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”
If the public school budget is $202.2 million short, it is far from “thorough”
If the kids in the richest schools are getting 13 times more resources than their less fortunate counterparts, it certainly is not “uniform.”
And if the patrons are digging deeper into their pockets each and every year, the last thing you’d call that is a system of “free common schools.” — M.T.