Following weeks of anticipation, legislators Thursday released a draft version of a bill designed to overhaul Idaho’s public school funding formula.
The 59-page draft — posted online at 5 p.m. Thursday — represents the first attempt to replace Idaho’s attendance-based funding formula with an enrollment-based model.
Legislators are bringing the proposal forward in a slightly unconventional fashion. Sponsors seldom release a draft of a bill before a legislative committee votes to introduce or “print” it. And that vote — the first step in the formal legislative process — appears to be at least a week away.
The House and Senate education committees will hold a joint listening session at 3 p.m. on Feb. 7, a step in getting feedback. The committees are unlikely to take a vote at that time, Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer said Thursday afternoon. The “print” hearing will occur at a later date, probably in Senate Education, said Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls.
What it would do
At the most basic level, the proposed new formula would create a school funding system where the money follows the student. The bill would provide a base amount of funding of $4,294 for every public school student. The formula would also use “weights” to provide additional funding for special education students, English language learners, gifted and talented students, economically disadvantaged students, small schools, large schools and remote schools, as well as wealth adjustment based on property values.
Because the money follows the student, that means for every student that leaves a given school, a base amount of $4,294 would go out the door. For every new student that arrives, a funding base of $4,294 would follow.
Supporters say the overhaul is needed because the existing formula hasn’t been updated in 25 years. The current model doesn’t take into account the modern education landscape, where student mobility, online learning, school choice, dual-credit courses and classroom technology are daily realities.
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Critics say that by taking the same amount of money and dividing it up differently, the proposal creates winners and losers — with 36 school districts or charters expecting to see a funding decrease, based the latest spreadsheet simulations.
Any change to the model is important because of the money involved. K-12 public school spending accounts for about 49 percent of Idaho’s general fund spending annually. A funding overhaul would affect every Idaho student, educator, public school employee, parent, grandparent and taxpayer.
How we got here
The Legislature’s Public School Funding Formula Interim Committee developed the proposal with the help of paid consultants from Education Commission of the States.
The interim committee worked on the proposal for three years and voted unanimously to recommend the proposal in November.
Who had a seat at the table?
From there, a group of legislators on the committee formed a subcommittee to translate the recommendation and spreadsheets into a bill.
Those legislators included:
- Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls.
- Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian.
- Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise.
- Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City.
- Sen. Dean Mortimer, R- Idaho Falls.
- House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.
Those legislators worked with Brooke Brourman from the Legislative Services Office, the main bill drafter, Horman and Den Hartog said.
Other legislators who assisted with drafting the bill or providing input included:
- Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise.
- House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls.
- House Education Committee Vice Chairman Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth.
The drafting subcommittee got to work in December, sometimes meeting in person, in small groups or via conference call, Horman and Den Hartog said.
Along the way, bill drafters also met with State Department of Education Deputy Superintendent for School Finance Tim Hill and State Board of Education Chief Planning and Policy Officer Tracie Bent.
“We really want to make clear this bill is a reflection of the committee’s recommendation, and that was the attempt with first draft,” Horman said. “We’re translating, basically, a mathematical formula into English. The core of that will relate to the formula and weights.”
Den Hartog said she had a few priorities in drafting the bill. They included transitioning from attendance to enrollment, making sure the money follows the student and protecting teacher salaries, and raises granted under the 2015 career ladder law.
“One thing we wanted to do is make sure to take care of those students who are mobile and help those schools and districts receiving students,” Den Hartog said.
Teacher salaries and the career ladder represent a sticking point in the debate. Horman and Den Hartog said bill drafters have made it a priority to preserve the career ladder, even though the proposal calls for running salary money through the formula and giving administrators discretion in how they spend it.
The draft isn’t final, and the career ladder language could be tweaked. Den Hartog said the steps in the career ladder, its separate rungs for residency and professional educators, could be folded into the new formula.
“We’re trying to retain the spirit of that, while recognizing a lot of school districts do things differently than what the actual (salary) allocation (from the state) is,” she said.
After the initial framework came together, Horman and Den Hartog said the bill drafters turned to local school superintendents and business managers to provide assistance and suggestions.
Horman declined to release the names of those school officials, but she estimated she worked with 24 administrators. Den Hartog estimated she met with 20 to 25 officials throughout the drafting process — sometimes over the phone, sometimes face to face.
“Those participants are under no obligation to support the bill, but they have been very gracious with their time and helping us get a draft that accurately reflects the interim committee’s recommendation.”
Division among school leaders
While the legislators are withholding the names of the administrators who helped draft the bill, another group of superintendents has come out publicly with questions and concerns.
Beginning in September, the Southern Idaho Superintendents Conference wrote a letter to the interim committee expressing concerns.
Together, the group represents about 40 percent of all Idaho public school students. Its members include:
- Mountain Home Superintendent James Gilbert.
- Boise Superintendent Don Coberly, and incoming superintendent Coby Dennis.
- Emmett Superintendent Wayne Rush.
- Vallivue Superintendent Pat Charlton.
- West Ada Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells.
- Kuna Superintendent Wendy Johnson.
- Nampa Superintendent Paula Kellerer.
- Middleton Superintendent Josh Middleton.
- Caldwell Superintendent Shalene French.
Eight of those superintendents met with Idaho Education News on Thursday, about four hours before the draft was unveiled (Charlton, Johnson and Rush did not attend). They had not yet read the draft, but said they continue to have numerous concerns based on the interim committee’s final recommendation, the process and the formula spreadsheets.
Among their concerns:
- They want to preserve the career ladder as it exists today, outside the funding formula.
- They are concerned about districts that would expect a funding decrease.
- They find the proposed wealth adjustment confusing, and don’t feel it has been explained or justified.
- They are worried about the level or transparency throughout the interim committee process, and significant changes between in the formula spreadsheets that said were not fully explained.
- Given the magnitude of the proposed change, they feel legislators need to slow down, gather more input and wait before moving ahead. Coberly said Gov. Brad Little’s proposed new education task force would be the perfect vehicle to consider the proposal.
The Treasure Valley superintendents say they are not throwing up barriers just for the sake of opposing change. Instead, the details and process concern them.
“Enrollment would help us,” said French, speaking for the Caldwell district. “We’re in favor of looking at enrollment for funding.”
Middleton arrived in Idaho in 2016, coming from a state where all the money was run through “one bucket.” He said he found Idaho’s approach transparent and refreshing, with separate line items carved out for various initiatives, from training to early reading intervention.
“When everything is in one bucket, student learning isn’t at the forefront,” Middleton said.
Gilbert said he’s been very concerned by the process. He said it has been difficult to track the proposal through different iterations of funding spreadsheets and to know who all is involved.
“This feels just like the days of Tom Luna and the secrecy that is behind it,” Gilbert said. “Any process, to be effective, needs to take time and have more stakeholder input. That’s what is missing right now and there is a rush to get this done because it’s been in the (interim) committee for a while and that shouldn’t be the reason for pressing forward like this.”
“We are under such scrutiny when we bring something to our (school) board that has not been reviewed or gotten stakeholder feedback and then asked the board to vote,” Middleton said. “The response is always, ‘What did teachers say or how do parents feel?’ That has not been the case in this process.”
One reason to introduce the draft online before moving forward is to gather input from the field and address concerns or mistakes, Horman and Den Hartog said. Drafters addressed one of the superintendents’ concerns by using an apples-to-apples comparison — building the draft and formula around 2018-19 funding levels and 2018-19 enrollment levels.
Another step was setting up an email account to gather educator feedback. Horman said that resulted in correcting some local data errors that were built into previous spreadsheets.
While Coberly appreciates the opportunities for feedback, he said the burden should not fall to local school officials to analyze the spreadsheets, identify all the errors and then email in to report them.
A starting point
Both Horman and Den Hartog said the draft unveiled Thursday is incomplete and likely to be changed. They view it as a starting point. They said they were still working to finalize calculations, including an experience index they say will be designed to preserve the career ladder and a cost-of-living index.
In order for Idaho to adopt a new funding formula, legislators would need to introduce a bill and pass it into law by winning approval from both education committees, passing it on the Senate and House floors and avoiding Little’s veto stamp.
Even if the bill becomes law, the changes would not take effect during the upcoming school year. Legislators are eyeing the 2020-21 school year to implement the change.
It’s too early to handicap the draft’s chances, but Mortimer has predicted the issue is the biggest education proposal on the table this year and there will be a vigorous debate.
“The Legislature is up to the task, but it will be a large lift — as large as the career ladder, if not more so,” Mortimer said, referencing the 2015 debate over the salary law. Legislators scrapped at least two early versions of that bill before eventually passing it through both the House and Senate with widespread support.