School funding formula committee begins drafting resolution

The Idaho Legislature’s school funding formula interim committee began drafting a resolution Monday calling for a change in the way the state funds public schools.

After two years of meetings, the committee inched closer to ditching the attendance-based model of funding and replacing it with a student enrollment-based funding model.

The change may sound like little more than semantics, but lawmakers and education officials say it’s a huge move that involves about $1.7 billion in general fund spending each year and affects almost 300,000 students.

“There is a lot of work remaining to be done before moving to a complete overhaul,” said Rep. Wendy Horman, the Idaho Falls Republican who serves as the committee’s co-chair.

Monday’s daylong meeting at the Statehouse likely marks the committee’s final meeting before the 2018 Legislative session begins in January. The interim committee did not issue a final report, or even approve the technical specifics that would guide and inform a transition to an enrollment-based funding model. Instead, members said they anticipate reconvening during the beginning of the 2018 legislative session to attach specific recommendations to their plan.

Horman and other members also envision asking legislative leaders to convene either an implementation committee, a technical advisory committee or another interim committee to continue the work.

Committee members also appear to be leaning against calling for the funding change through laws and statutes, saying they prefer to draft recommendations in the form of a resolution. Joint House and Senate rules define a resolution as “the adoption of a motion, the subject matter of which would not properly constitute a statute.”

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Although no formal changes were approved Monday, Horman said she wants to be thoughtful implementing the change. As a former school board member, Horman said school officials will soon begin looking to build their budget for the upcoming school year. For that reason, she doesn’t want to spring a massive change on them and leave school officials anxious with little time to react. For that reason, Horman doesn’t see major changes coming forward for the 2018-19 school year.

Some committee members are debating the next move. Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, a Boise Democrat and retired teacher, said she was frustrated with the interim committee’s pace of business.

“If this resolution is a tool to move us toward good educational outcomes for our kids, then it’s a positive step,” Ward-Engelking said in a written statement. “But we’ve been studying the issue for several years already. We need solutions for our kids, not more resolutions. The way we fund our schools is broken.”

State Board of Education President Linda Clark, who also serves on the school funding interim committee, said the committee has a specific framework in place and will look next to attach details to the funding transition plan.

Clark stressed it will be important to keep school officials up-to-date on the recommendations and outline a transition timeline that doesn’t lose momentum.

“I have concerns about a real long implementation. If we go to a five-year implementation, for example, the players change, the focus changes, the folks on the technical committee, many of those people change and you can lose sight of it,” Clark said.

Committee members reviewed several proposals Monday, but still have not fully decided how to define full-time enrollment, define fractional enrollment or attach any weighting measures that would be applied to special education students or students learning English.

There are other intangibles as well. State officials recently noticed a family sending their child to kindergarten in two different districts — one district in the morning, another in the afternoon — in an apparent attempt to circumvent Idaho’s half-day kindergarten funding system. Under the current system, the state reduced its payments to each district, rather than pay for the same student twice. But state officials must consider how they would pay for student mobility under the new system, with more realistic examples including homeschool students or charter school students who wish to attend a limited number of classes at public schools in order to participate in music, clubs or sports programs.

During Monday’s meeting, committee members stressed they will honor their commitment to fund the five-year plan to raise teacher pay through the career ladder salary law, even as they work to change the overall funding formula.

Back in 2013, Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education recommended the state transition to an enrollment-based model of funding.

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