State of the State: Little prioritizes teacher pay raises in a tight budget year

In a tight budget year, Gov. Brad Little used his State of the State address Monday to prioritize raises for veteran teachers and other K-12 investments.

Little called for increasing K-12 public school spending by almost 4.1 percent, or $77.7 million. Little wants a bigger increase for public schools than the overall state budget, where he recommended a 3.75 percent increase.

While he held the line on several state agencies, Little urged the Legislature to make strategic funding investments that reflect “the need for us to make Idaho strong today and prepared for tomorrow.”

“…We also have a moral obligation to all our youngest children,” Little said. “I subscribe to the view that it is better to prepare children today than to repair them later.”

The biggest driver of Little’s education agenda for next year is a $30 million plan to give raises to Idaho’s most experienced teachers. Increasing veteran teacher pay was one of five recommendations Little’s “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” task force issued in November.

“We cannot simply rely on the good hearts of teachers any longer to retain an effective teaching workforce in Idaho,” Little said. “We must pay them competitively.”

Little called raises for teachers “a down payment to continue increasing teacher pay over the next several years.”

“Performance criteria will ensure accountability,” Little continued.

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Under Little’s budget, colleges and universities would only receive a .39 percent increase in general fund spending. However, Little and his staff pointed out that higher ed spending is spread across multiple budgets.

Other highlights from Little’s budget:

  • $7.7 million for the second year of raising the state’s minimum teacher salary to $40,000.
  • $7 million to make last year’s one-time increase for the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship an ongoing budget commitment.
  • $6 million in the capital budget for new career-technical education facilities, including buildings at College of Eastern Idaho and Lewis-Clark State College.
  • $3.2 million to make last year’s $26 million literacy initiative funding ongoing.
  • A $2 million increase for advanced opportunities programs to help high school students earn college or technical credits.
  • $1 million for professional development and additional resources to serve students facing social-emotional issues, including trauma and mental illness. This was the second education task force recommendation Little prioritized Monday.
  • $1 million in one-time spending for a new cybersecurity program, a partnership between Idaho State University. Boise State University and University of Idaho.
  • $35 million from the Tax Relief Fund — not the general fund — to “provide relief” from the state’s sales tax on groceries without impacting funding available for education.

Little says his budget would transfer $32 million into the Public Education Stabilization Fund (PESF) rainy-day account and leave an approximately $60 million ending balance at the end of the 2020 and 2021 budget years. Little’s budget lieutenants said end-of-year balances and increased rainy-day accounts would help better position Idaho to ride out a future economic slowdown.

Little’s plan to boost pay for veteran teachers mirrors a top priority from Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, who served on Little’s education task force.

In September, Ybarra requested a 5.3 percent increase in K-12 spending, a $100.8 million increase. The centerpiece of Ybarra’s budget proposal was $40 million to increase pay for veteran teachers — $10 million more than Little requested.

After the speech, Ybarra said she was extremely pleased that her priorities and Little’s priorities are closely aligned.

Sherri Ybarra

“I’m really excited going into this session we are on the same page and have a lot of the same priorities like teacher pay, professional development, as well as reading literacy,” Ybarra said. “All those things are things my office has been working on for a while.”

On Thursday afternoon, Ybarra and Little are scheduled to meet. Ybarra told Idaho Education News one of the topics they plan to discuss is the budget.

“I can’t complain if education is going to be the top priority again this year, right?” Ybarra said.

After the speech, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said Little’s call to use the “career ladder” law to increase pay for veteran teachers gave him some pause.

Bedke said he visited with his local school districts in Burley and Rupert over the off-season and administrators told him they would appreciate more flexibility to address teacher retention. For instance, Bedke said some schools would rather apply more funding to pay for classified employees, such as IT directors or reading aides.

“We all agreed we have got to have great teachers in our classrooms, but how we do that maybe changes from district to district.”

When asked if he sees opportunities to work with Little on his K-12 agenda this year, Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said “absolutely.”

“I really want to make this a great session,” said Mortimer, who will not seek re-election after the session ends. “I really believe that we are really going to work hard on education and do as much as we can.”

K-12 was a central theme of Little’s 40-minute address. He congratulated 2020 Idaho Teacher of the Year Staci Lawler from Timberlake Junior High School in Spirit Lake. Lawler was in the House chambers for Little’s speech, received a massive standing ovation from the Legislature.

Little also highlighted growth in reading proficiency levels at Betty Kiefer Elementary in Rathdrum and Chief Joseph Elementary in Meridian.

A 3.75 percent increase represents the smallest gubernatorial budget recommendation since 2014, when Idaho was emerging from the Great Recession.

Little did not address the task force’s recommendation to expand opportunities for all-day kindergarten. Instead, Little and his staff said they are focusing on a multi-year, phased implementation plan for the task force recommendations. For 2020-21, Little focused on teacher pay and social-emotional learning, along with ongoing funding for his literacy initiative.

Additional reaction to Little’s speech:

State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield: “From where (task force co-chairman) Bill Gilbert and I were sitting, we were very pleased, particularly with the fact all but two of the (task force) recommendations had some sort of formal acknowledgment. We are excited with where the governor wants to go, particularly with the social-emotional piece, the continued investment in literacy and the build out of the career ladder.”

Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton: “We are thrilled and excited he is so supportive of education. When you start at the beginning and you invest there, it trickles up. And there is also support for higher ed, so we’re really pleased.”

University of Idaho President Scott Green: “I’m just very pleased to see the Opportunity Scholarship is in there again this year. That does truly make our education more affordable for our students.”

More reading: Little sets a frugal tone for the 2020 session. An analysis piece from Idaho Education News’ Kevin Richert.

Clark Corbin

About Clark Corbin

Reporter Clark Corbin has covered Idaho government and education for more than a decade. He’s followed every legislative session, gavel-to-gavel, since 2011. Clark is a co-host of the Extra Credit podcast with Kevin Richert published on Fridays. You can follow him on Twitter: @clarkcorbin. He can be reached by email at ccorbin@idahoednews.org

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