Lawmakers face a funding and accountability puzzle

It sounds simple in theory: School funding should be tied to school accountability.

But nothing is simple when it comes to rewriting a school funding formula.

Other states have tried to link the “pillars” of funding and accountability, Michael Griffith of the Education Commission of the States told lawmakers Tuesday. But it’s a complicated process, even when it gets results.

In 1993, Massachusetts essentially tied a rewritten funding formula to accountability. State officials tried to figure out what it would cost to get the results they were looking for — and funded line items from teacher positions to training to administration accordingly.

The formula gives state officials a stick to use, if a school district doesn’t meet benchmarks, Griffith said. The approach is working for Massachusetts, he said, but it would be impossible to work up a similar formula in Idaho in time for the 2019 legislative session.

“And I don’t think we can change timelines,” said Griffith, a consultant working with Idaho lawmakers on a funding formula rewrite.

Lawmakers expressed no interest in a new timeline. For two summers, their 10-member committee has studied a complicated formula that has been in use since 1994. But now, the committee seems determined to have recommendations for the 2019 Legislature.

That doesn’t mean lawmakers aren’t interested in some kind of accountability tie-in. Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, and Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, both seemed interested in giving high-performing schools some added spending flexibility. Tennessee and North Dakota already have similar rewards in place.

Other states give high-performing schools a larger piece of the budget. For example, Arizona awards $38 million to high-achieving schools, based on test scores.

The committee made no decisions Tuesday about linking money to accountability. But Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said she was concerned about linking funding to test scores — since schools that rate poorly tend to have higher poverty rates, and probably need increased state support. State Board of Education President Linda Clark said a reward system needs to treat all schools fairly, regardless of demographics.

Over the next few months, the committee is likely to come to conclusions on an accountability tie-in, and other issues pertaining to a formula that carves up $1.8 billion in K-12 spending.

It’s a high-stakes process, and even though Tuesday’s meeting was largely organizational in nature, it drew a high-powered audience — including Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill and several other legislators, lobbyists for the state’s most prominent education groups, and Jeff Dillon, a Wilder school superintendent and candidate for state schools superintendent. Incumbent state superintendent Sherri Ybarra was not on hand — she was with her colleagues on the State Land Board for a hearing down the hall at the Statehouse — but several State Department of Education staffers were in the audience.

On Tuesday morning, the committee and ECS consultants started hammering out a busy summer schedule.

Starting in June, ECS expects to host six field hearings across the state. Each stop on the road trip will be a twofer of sorts. ECS will host invitation-only focus group meetings with about a dozen participants — largely school business managers and superintendents — as well as public hearings.

From there, the funding formula committee will get back to work, with meetings in July, August and September.

The goal is to finish a final report by late October.

Griffith reminded lawmakers that they will make the decisions.

“We do not have the formula written,” he said. “There isn’t some secret plan. We don’t have a dog in the fight.”

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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