State Board of Education President Kurt Liebich called out two Idaho political narratives Wednesday.
One target was a familiar one: Liebich again blasted Idahoans who are pushing an anti-public education agenda. It was a thinly veiled criticism of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the hardline conservative lobbying group — although Liebich didn’t mention the group by name.
But Liebich also criticized another storyline — one that he sees tied to the Reclaim Idaho education funding voter initiative. Liebich said the campaign suggests that Idaho legislators are failing to fund the state’s schools.
“I think that’s a pretty dangerous narrative,” Liebich said at the Idaho Association of School Administrators’ annual conference in Boise. “I think we have to be careful when we use that narrative.”
Reclaim Idaho has proposed increasing Idaho’s corporate tax rate, and adding a higher tax rate for individual Idahoans making more than $250,000 and families making more than $500,000. The group says its Quality Education Act would raise $323 million a year for K-12. The Freedom Foundation argues that Reclaim’s initiative also rolls back 2022 income tax cuts, bringing the annual price tag to $573 million — and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office agrees.
Reclaim says its initiative would bolster K-12 spending in a state that ranks near the bottom in national rankings for per-pupil spending. Liebich on Wednesday acknowledged that the state is playing catchup, but he said the Legislature has made a concerted effort to boost K-12 spending over the past two years.
This winter, lawmakers passed a $2.1 billion K-12 budget, an 11% increase.
Still, Liebich said public education will face political pressure during the 2023 legislative session. He predicted lawmakers will take another run at passing a voucher or education savings accounts bill, “which does nothing more than siphon funds from our public schools.” And he said the culture wars over public education show no signs of slowing.
“Our system’s under attack,” Liebich said.
But Liebich said administrators can do one thing to counter the critics: They can work on improving early reading scores. After the Legislature added $46 million to the literacy line item this year, bringing the budget to $72 million, schools need to show lawmakers a return on their investment.
“We have to move the dial on literacy,” Liebich said. “We’ve got to show that we’re moving all students.”
But Bonneville School District Superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme cautioned against expecting an immediate cash infusion to yield immediate results. “We need a little bit of time.”
Liebich and State Board Executive Director Matt Freeman both agreed. “We need a five-year trendline … before we can make any quantitative decisions,” Freeman said.
Check back at Idaho Education News for full coverage from the Idaho Association of School Administrators conference.