After Monday night, it would be easy to conclude Idaho is a national education leader — or a national embarrassment.
That’s because gubernatorial candidates Brad Little and Paulette Jordan painted diametrically different pictures during a televised debate. And both cited national rankings to make their case.
As usual, the realities are more complicated than the soundbites.
Let’s fact-check what the candidates said on education.
Idaho teacher raises
Little repeated a favorite talking point from the Idaho Republican Party script: Idaho ranks tops in the nation for teacher pay raises.
And that’s true, according to National Education Association rankings. Idaho teacher salaries increased by 3.6 percent from 2017 to 2018.
Nationwide, teacher salaries increased by 1.4 percent.
It’s more than a bit ironic that the GOP is citing a historic adversary, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. Then again, this is an unusual election. The NEA’s local affiliate, the Idaho Education Association, is endorsing Little — as Little made sure to point out.
(More reading: From January, here’s a closer look at Idaho teacher pay raises.)
Teacher pay rankings
Little bristled when Jordan said Idaho teacher salaries still rank at the bottom of national rankings.
“We are not last in teacher pay,” he said.
And he’s right, according to the NEA’s national report. Idaho teacher salaries ranked No. 41. (Here’s a link to the NEA report; the teacher pay raise table appears on page 49.)
Idaho’s average teacher salary came in at $49,225 — almost 19 percent below the national average.
Meanwhile, a second recent study cast Idaho’s rankings in a sobering light. The Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy concluded that Idaho’s teacher salaries are comparable to other red states, such as Kentucky and Arizona, where teachers have walked off the job to protest low pay.
Are salaries losing ground?
Throughout the hour-long debate, Jordan painted the years of one-party GOP rule as a failure — and scoffed at Idaho’s “most improved” teacher pay ranking.
“Really we have fallen behind over the last many years, including the last decade that you’ve been in charge,” said Jordan, addressing Little directly.
The facts support the Democratic nominee’s claims.
Because, while the GOP hails the one-year improvement in salaries, the party doesn’t mention other numbers that appear on the very same table. From 2009 to 2018, Idaho teacher salaries increased by 9 percent. Nationally, the increase was 11.2 percent.
Looking at data dating back to 1999-2000, and adjusting the numbers for inflation, the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy concluded that Idaho salaries have lost ground against the rest of the nation.
So Jordan is correct. Despite the career ladder, a five-year, $250 million plan to boost teacher pay, Idaho is still playing catchup.
Are we really at the bottom?
“When it comes to education, we’ve been last,” said Jordan.
“We are not 50th in the country,” Little retorted. “That is categorically, undeniably incorrect.”
The answer: It depends on which ranking you look at. Sometimes within the same study.
Earlier this year, Education Week gave Idaho a D-plus grade for education, again ranking the state No. 48 nationally.
And in one of its three main categories, school finance, Education Week did rank Idaho dead last in the nation. That ranking looked at metrics such as the percentage of taxable resources a state dedicates to education, and per-pupil spending.
And Idaho perennially ranks very low in per-pupil spending, flip-flopping with Utah at the bottom of the national rankings. (See pages 37 and 38 of the NEA report for rankings based on enrollment and attendance.)
While Little and Republicans accurately point out that K-12 spending has increased by about $100 million per year for four years, the infusion of dollars hasn’t moved Idaho up the national charts.
Idaho’s spending commitment
Touting Idaho’s commitment to education, Little pointed out that Idaho devotes a large share of its state budget to K-12.
In 2015-16, only two states put a larger percentage of their budgets into elementary and secondary education, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
And Idaho has been fairly consistent over the past two decades. Generally, K-12 has received somewhere between 48 and 50 percent of the state budget each year. This year, K-12’s cut came to 48.9 percent.
The flip side: Idaho schools are forced to depend on state funding, because they have limited local taxing authority. In 2014-15, Idaho schools received barely a quarter of their dollars from local taxes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The national average comes in at nearly 45 percent.
This balance changed dramatically in August 2006, when the Legislature slashed school property taxes by $260 million and used an increase in the state sales to offset most of the cut. As a state senator, Little voted for this tax shift, and says the imperfect bill was needed to head off a property tax revolt.
All about ACT scores
Little said Idaho eclipsed all of its neighbors on the ACT.
He’s right, based on 2017 scores on the college placement test. Idaho ranked No. 17 nationally.
But there’s an important asterisk.
Only 38 percent of Idaho high school graduates took the ACT, compared to 60 percent of graduates nationally.
That’s important because Idaho’s small sample is made up almost exclusively of college-bound students. Some take the ACT specifically to apply to a college that requires it. In many Western states, a vast majority of high school students take the ACT, whether they plan to go to college or not. That large sample size tends to drive down scores.
Because participation rates vary so widely, it’s difficult to compare state-to-state scores on the ACT. The same goes for the SAT, which most Idaho juniors take at the state’s expense.
(A footnote: The 2018 ACT scores will be released Wednesday.)
More reading: Coverage of Monday’s debate from Rebecca Boone of the Associated Press.