Gubernatorial candidates disagree on school funding

Education funding was the underlying theme Thursday night, as three gubernatorial candidates squared off for the last time.

With the general election looming Tuesday, Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, Democratic A.J. Balukoff and Libertarian John Bujak sparred for 90 minutes in a live event hosted by Idaho Public Television.

Questions covered taxes, transportation funding and gay marriage but predominately referenced public education.

Here’s what the candidates had to say on education issues:

Idaho’s constitution mandates lawmakers fund a uniform public school system. More than 90 of Idaho’s 115 school districts rely on supplemental levies, a number that has increased during Otter’s eight years in office. Is Idaho meeting its constitutional mandate?

Otter agreed Idaho is not meeting the constitutional mandate. “I don’t know that Idaho has ever met that mandate, But moving up the scale on education reform, we’re going to come a lot closer than we ever have been.”

Balukoff said not meeting that mandate is a problem for the executive branch. “There is a greater disparity than ever in the state of Idaho. We are not in any form obeying the Constitution.” Balukoff also said he would push for lowering the two-thirds majority required to pass a school bond.

Bujak thinks Idaho is “doing OK. Let’s step back and take a look at the model being used. The answer isn’t always to throw more money at the problem.”

How much money should the state give to public schools?

Balukoff said Idaho is nearly $100 million short of the 2009 funding level and to make matters worse, there are 22,000 more students than five years ago. He said he’d fix that shortfall by eliminating waste in government, changing priorities and giving education the more than $70 million Otter diverted into a rainy day fund.

Otter bragged that Idaho ranks fourth in the country for the percentage of the general fund dedicated to education. “For every dollar (spent on education) 73 cents comes for the general fund.” Otter said the money woes were caused by decreasing  property values and depressed appraisals.

Bujak agreed that plenty of the state general fund goes to education and the way to give more money to schools is to “increase the size of the pie” through economic growth. He would cut back on administration costs and get rid of Common Core and “think outside the box to generate more income.”

How would the candidates fund the Otter-appointed Task Force for Improving Education’s 20 recommendations, at a cost of $350 million?

Bujak said the funding isn’t in place because the Legislature can only fund one year at a time.

Otter supports the recommendations, and said the plan can be funded over five years without a tax increase. “With the growth we anticipate, we’re not going to have to raise taxes to achieve that investment.”

Balukoff complained that the governor never attended any of the task force meetings and said “it looks like a 10-year program and not a five-year program.”

Where do the candidates stand on tiered teacher licensure?

Otter supports the tiered-licensure plan, currently waiting for approval by the State Board of Education, which has conducted regional hearings where hundreds of teachers criticized the plan.

Bujak and Balukoff both said they disapprove of the tiered-licensure plan.

Three longtime Idaho journalists — Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review, Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News and Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman — questioned the candidates Thursday night.

The debate is available online at Idahoptv.org.