Funding formula ‘work group’ begins its long, complicated job

The task of rewriting Idaho’s school funding formula came into a bit of focus Wednesday.

Political leaders said they wanted a new formula that is stable and flexible, that promotes accountability — but is easy to understand. They agreed that they will need to go on the road and discuss their ideas with local educators. And they braced for some tough questions about Idaho tax policy.

An imposing checklist for a committee that isn’t even meeting officially yet.

The school funding formula “work group” held its first organizational meeting in the Statehouse Wednesday afternoon. Eventually, the “work group” will evolve into a formal legislative “interim committee,” assigned by the Legislature to propose changes in the funding formula. But legislative leaders won’t meet to assign members to the committee for several more weeks.

Even so, the work group’s informal meeting drew a high-powered gathering of lawmakers and education leaders — from House Speaker Scott Bedke to State Board of Education member Linda Clark to Marilyn Whitney, Gov. Butch Otter’s aide assigned to education issues. State superintendent Sherri Ybarra attended via speaker phone, and Ybarra had several staffers in attendance.

Wendy Horman
Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls

Ybarra will have a spot on the interim committee — which is unusual, since these committees are normally made up only of legislators. The State Board will also have a representative. Based on Wednesday’s attendance, the committee could draw from a list of several prominent lawmakers: Bedke; Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer; Senate Education Vice Chair Steven Thayn; Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder; House Education Committee Vice Chair Julie VanOrden; Rep. Wendy Horman, a key member of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee; and Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, a retired teacher who sits on Senate Education.

The committee’s task is imposing, in part, because the stakes are high. The current school funding formula will carve up nearly $1.6 billion of tax money in 2016-17, about 48 percent of the state’s budget. The formula hasn’t been rewritten since 1994 — before the advent of online learning and charter schools.

There seems to be widespread agreement that the formula needs to be rewritten to reflect a modern school system, where students are more mobile and have more opportunities to pursue college classes while in high school. But Winder — who is expected to co-chair the interim committee — doesn’t expect the group to finish its work by January, when the 2017 Legislature convenes.

Winder.4.6.16
Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise

“We may take a significant amount of time to work through the issues,” said Winder, R-Boise.

And the issues may not be limited to the formula, and how Idaho splits its K-12 budgets between large and small districts, urban and rural communities and traditional and charter schools. The current tax code also factors into the debate.

Bedke, R-Oakley, said he still supports the 2006 overhaul that slashed schools’ property taxing authority and used a sales tax increase to cover most of the difference. But the tax shift remains controversial, a decade after the fact — and will certainly come up during committee hearings.

Speaker of the House Scott Bedke
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley

“I think we better be prepared to answer these questions when we take this show on the road,” Bedke said.

As for next steps, the work group will try to meet in the next few weeks with school officials from Kuna and Wilder.

The two Southwest Idaho districts are looking to move to a mastery-based school system — a method that promotes students based on their command of topics.

That move also poses funding challenges, Whitney said. Kuna officials are having to work around Idaho’s attendance-based funding formula in order to adopt a mastery program.