Funding formula rewrite still up in the air after second committee meeting

The committee trying to rewrite Idaho’s school funding formula got back together Friday, and the meeting yielded more questions than answers.

State superintendent Debbie Critchfield wants to rewrite Idaho’s K-12 funding formula — an antiquated piece of state policy that dictates how much money schools receive and what it can be spent on. But with less than a month to go before her Sept. 1 deadline, the superintendent — and her hand-picked committee of lawmakers and education leaders — are making slow progress.

The committee met for the second time Friday; its first meeting took place on July 20. Now, the committee isn’t expected to reconvene until Aug. 31.

Critchfield, with co-chairs Horman and Den Hartog, led Friday’s meeting.

No one denied that the current funding formula needs a rewrite. In fact, complaints about the formula were abundant during Friday morning’s meeting at the Statehouse.

Educators voiced concerns that the switch back to an attendance-based funding model (as opposed to the enrollment-based funding model used during the pandemic) could impose significant hurdles next school year. Lawmakers worried that the current formula doesn’t fulfill their constitutional obligation to provide a uniform education to all Idaho students, when quality of education and access to programming can vary from district to district. Many leaders said the current formula is too rigid — it ties up money and forces districts to work around state law in order to innovate and match the needs of their communities.

And since the formula has gone nearly 30 years without a rewrite, committee members agreed that the current policy is outdated, complicated and misaligned.

“We have a three-bedroom house with 19 bathrooms,” said Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, who co-chairs the committee alongside Critchfield and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls. “We just keep adding on and it doesn’t make sense anymore.” 

The meeting drew around 50 participants from around the state, including school board members, superintendents, business managers, policymakers and legislators.

But after three hours of poking holes in the formula and deconstructing the education system, the committee didn’t latch onto any detailed solutions to Idaho’s K-12 funding problems.

Some overarching ideas emerge

The committee agreed on some components that a rewritten formula should have.

Senate Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, who worked on a previous effort to rework the policy, suggested weighting the new formula to better serve at-risk populations.

A couple of school district business managers told Critchfield that line items should be carefully and intentionally balanced with discretionary funding to help free up money, while also providing guidance and direction on other expenditures.

But the conversation largely focused on a formula that allows for greater flexibility and customization.

After the pandemic, attitudes toward attendance have changed, and it could result in funding complications for schools, said Blackfoot Superintendent Brian Kress.

Families are expecting more lenience from their school districts, said Kress. They want workbooks and assignments in advance of long vacations. Students are joining apprenticeships or workforce training programs that take them out of the classroom setting, and some students are splitting their time between online charters and brick-and-mortar schools, or even between districts.

Under a model based on seat time, these attitudes toward attendance could cause schools to lose out on money, said Kress. He urged the committee to develop solutions better aligned to a post-pandemic world, like broadening the definition of attendance or basing funding off of another factor entirely.

Sen. Dave Lent agreed.

“We’re moving to a model where the standard is the outcome, and the variable is time,” said Lent, R-Idaho Falls. “As you measure outcomes, we’re about learning, not seat time. … Parents want learning, not seat time.”

The committee juggled with a proposed definition of attendance, provided by an attorney from the Legislative Services Office, and offered several other solutions, including redefining attendance, changing seat time requirements or determining a new factor to base funding on. But ultimately, the committee did not settle on a path forward.

As Friday’s meeting wrapped up, Critchfield urged committee members to develop their own ideas and send them her way before the next meeting. That Aug. 31 meeting comes just one day before the superintendent’s budget request is due to Gov. Brad Little.

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber, a former reporter with Ed News that focused on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley.

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