K-12 funding — Is Idaho No. 50, or No. 51?

Is Idaho No. 50 or No. 51 in education funding?

It depends on what measure you use. But reports of Idaho’s dead-last ranking — and a recent fundraising email from gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff — do not tell the whole story.

A May report from U.S. Census Bureau adds to the confusion. But it is clear on at least one point: Idaho spends less than 63 percent of the national average on K-12 education.

What the numbers say

The Census Bureau looks at two key metrics: revenue and spending.

Otter square
Gov. Butch Otter

Revenue looks at how much money a state collects for K-12, from federal, state or local sources. By this measure, Idaho does come in at No. 51 for 2011-12 — lagging behind every other state and the District of Columbia — at $7,405 per pupil. Next lowest is Utah, at $7,607 per pupil. The national average is $12,331 per pupil.

Spending looks at actual expenditures for 2011-12. Here Idaho manages to escape the basement. Per-pupil spending came to $6,659, beating out Utah’s $6,206 figure. The national average, however, was $10,608.

What the pundits and politicos say

Idaho’s No. 51 ranking in revenues hasn’t escaped the notice of some Idaho reporters — but several articles have said, incorrectly, that Idaho ranked last in per-pupil spending.

Balukoff square
A.J. Balukoff

In an Aug. 21 fundraising email, Balukoff also conflated the terms. “Not only is our dead last standing in the country for investment in education unacceptable, it’s downright shameful.”

Balukoff has corrected the wording, campaign spokesman Mike Lanza said. A subsequent fundraising pitch noted Idaho’s No. 50 ranking in spending — but maintained that this, too, is “downright shameful.”

Balukoff, the Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee and a longtime Boise School Board member, says the state rankings can vary — depending on who’s making the rankings and how they do the math. He said he has seen various studies putting Idaho anywhere from No. 47 to No. 51. “To me, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference if you’re ranked 47th or 51st.”

Republican incumbent Gov. Butch Otter has downplayed the funding issue. “I still think we have to look at the results,” Otter said at a Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce luncheon last week. “It’s not how much money you spend, it’s how you spend the money.”

Under Otter’s watch, the state cut K-12 spending during the Great Recession — and the $1.37 billion 2014-15 general fund budget for K-12 remains below the 2008-09 budget.

What they’re saying in Utah

When Utah elected officials got wind of the latest Census report, they took to social media and committee rooms to crow about finally leapfrogging Idaho.

One quote — related by the Salt Lake Tribune, in an Aug. 3 article — came from a meeting of legislative leaders. “Idaho now holds the once-coveted position that we held for so long that none of us were real proud of,” said state Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

Bruce Williams, an associate state superintendent in Utah’s Office of Education, conceded the spending metric paints a more accurate picture than the revenue picture. But when the Salt Lake Tribune contacted state auditor John Dougall, he didn’t back down from bragging up Utah’s ranking. The revenue statistics, he said, reflect a state’s school building needs.

“We’re a rapidly growing state,” Dougall told the Tribune. “We have to build lots of new school buildings. That’s part of our cost of education, so to ignore that part of spending is unfair versus, say, a state that’s shrinking.”

What the rankings say about Idaho

The Census Bureau’s per-pupil spending numbers allow detailed state-by-state comparisons. By every metric, Idaho lagged near the bottom of national rankings in 2011-12.

  • Per-pupil spending on instruction ranked No. 50.
  • Spending on salaries ranked No. 50.
  • Spending on employee benefits ranked No. 46.
  • Spending on school administration ranked No. 50.

And the rankings quantify the wide funding gap between Idaho and other states.

In 2011-12, Idaho spent $3,949 less per student than the national average. Multiplying that number by 2011-12 statewide enrollment of 281,772 — a headcount that only continues to rise — and the gap comes to $1.11 billion. That comes to 90 cents for every dollar Idaho put into its 2011-12 K-12 budget, a $1.22 billion spending plan adopted by the Legislature and signed by Otter.

And Idaho even has a long slog to get out of the No. 50 spot. Idaho also spent $807 less per student than Oklahoma, which ranked No. 49 on the list. It would have cost $227.4 million for Idaho to bridge that gap and climb one rung in the national rankings.

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]

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