Critchfield’s committee wraps up its work, for the time being

The committee reviewing Idaho’s school funding formula finished its summer meetings.

But not its work.

If anything, the hard work awaits. Between now and January, state superintendent Debbie Critchfield’s hand-picked committee will dive into some of the hard policy questions that dictate school funding. At stake, ultimately, is the way Idaho spends $2.7 billion to support 300,000 students, and the way the money is split among 115 school districts and 78 charter schools. Idaho hasn’t rewritten its school funding formula since 1994.

The panel of education stakeholders and lawmakers is on board with one of Critchfield’s ideas: a structural change. Idaho’s K-12 budget is now carved up into seven separate spending bills, all requiring legislative approval before they can go to the governor’s desk. Critchfield would like to compress the budget into three bills.

These bills would cover three general themes: a “uniformity” piece that includes items such as salaries, benefits and transportation; a “thoroughness” piece including line items such as literacy and Advanced Opportunities; and a bill that provides discretionary dollars to districts and charters.

The goal, she says, is to simplify an arcane budget.

Critchfield wanted to move on this structural change because she is on a deadline. She must submit her 2024-25 budget proposal to Gov. Brad Little’s office by Friday, and she wants to adopt this simplified model.

But that model doesn’t really change how the money is spent.

“Those are conversations that we can and will continue to have after Friday,” Critchfield said at the outset of Thursday morning’s committee meeting.

The committee spent a chunk of Thursday’s two-hour meeting talking about policy. The committee also revisited the debate over using a formula based on student attendance or student enrollment.

Idaho adopted an enrollment-based model during the COVID-19 pandemic, after schools were thrust into virtual learning. But this year, the state returned to an attendance-based approach. Proponents of attendance-based model say they want to encourage schools to do everything they can to get kids into the classroom; opponents say an enrollment-based model better reflects the real cost of providing education.

Both arguments came up Thursday morning.

Anne Ritter, a trustee with Meridian Medical Arts Charter High School, said she wanted to make sure schools address chronic absenteeism. “I don’t want to lose that focus on that child.”

But in Melba, attendance-based funding causes an annual problem. Every year, 20 to 30 migrant students leave Melba in December and January, and return in February, trustee Jason Knopp said. This short-term dropoff in attendance affects funding, but the rural Canyon County district can’t cut staffing during that two-month period.

Meanwhile, in Twin Falls, attendance-based funding is a high-stakes proposition.

Schools reopened on Aug. 16, and attendance is stuck at about 92% — higher than pandemic levels, but below pre-pandemic peaks. An uptick in local COVID-19 cases could be the cause of the increased absenteeism, Superintendent Brady Dickinson said Thursday. But regardless of the cause, attendance rates are critical during the first few weeks of the year, because they are the basis for state funding for staffing.

During the committee’s three summer meetings, members have talked about trying to find some kind of a middle ground, combining enrollment and attendance metrics.

And after Thursday’s meeting, Critchfield said the enrollment vs. attendance issue is the most important question before the committee.

“Right now, that is really at the heart of how we drive the funding,” she said.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday