State of the State: Little says education will be his top priority

Newly sworn-in Gov. Brad Little used his first State of the State address Monday to call for strategic investments in teacher pay and youth literacy.

Little, an Emmett Republican who was officially sworn in as Idaho’s 33rd governor Monday, set the tone on his first day in office by calling education “my No. 1 priority for our state budget.”

“Education policy requires long-term planning and commitment,” Little said.

“As governor I will continue our momentum and be an unrelenting advocate for educational excellence in our schools.”

Little delivered an optimistic speech, which lasted 34 minutes and was interrupted for applause multiple times.

“From Boundary to Bear Lake counties, and Letha to Leadore, I can tell you with confidence — the state of our state is strong,” Little said.

“Our state is on an incredible trajectory,” Little continued. “With your help, I intend to lead us to the next level.”

In conjunction with his speech, Little unveiled his 2019-20 budget request. Overall, he called for increasing public school spending by $106 million, or 5.9 percent. Some of his top budget priorities include:

  • Spending almost $60 million in new funding on teacher raises. That includes almost $48 million to pay for the fifth year of implementing the career ladder salary law. On top of that, Little wants to spend $11.2 million to increase the minimum teacher salary to $40,000.
  • Spending $13 million in new funding to double the funding available for the state’s literacy proficiency program. Under this investment, school districts and charters would be able to decide how to use the money to increase literacy and ensure students are reading at grade level by third grade. Options for using the funds include allowing districts to expand to full-day kindergarten or employing summer reading programs.
  • Spending $7 million in new funding to expand the Opportunity Scholarship and increase scholarships. In 2018, there were 1,780 applicants who met the scholarship criteria but did not receive the scholarship because there wasn’t enough funding. The $7 million will allow the state to offer more scholarships and meet some of that demand.
  • Spending almost $7.2 million for new salary incentives known as master educator premiums, designed to offer a financial incentive to Idaho’s most experienced and effective teachers.
  • Creating a new education task force, called Our Kids, Idaho’s Future, to come up with a new five-year plan for K-12 schools.
  • Creating a new “children’s cabinet” comprising education stakeholders, parents and groups that will advise Little on a variety of educational issues.

Little’s budget request was also notable for what it didn’t include. Little did not recommend funding Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra’s controversial $19.1 million school safety plan, Keep Idaho Students Safe. Little did call for $255,600 in federal spending authority to implement a mobile application tip line through a Department of Justice grant the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security secured. But Little did not advocate for spending any state general fund dollars — this year or next — on the KISS plan.

Meanwhile, Ybarra has said she will seek a supplemental funding request to spend $19.1 million from the current year’s budget to offer school safety grants to every Idaho district and charter.

Ybarra called for a 6.8 percent increase in education spending — a $122 million increase, compared to the $106 million Little proposed.

Ybarra’s budget also makes teacher pay its top priority, and goes beyond Little’s requests. Ybarra wants to invest $52.9 million in the final year of the career ladder and an additional $27.8 million to increase salary ranges to $37,200 to $52,200.

Little also acknowledged the revenue shortage that has been vexing state officials. He called for leaving large ending balances in his budget for 2019 and 2020 and waiting until 2021 to repeal the state’s grocery tax, one of his campaign priorities.

Little said he is confident lagging income revenues will rebound after Tax Day. But he also called for a balanced budget and conservative spending plan.

“Though we are confident, in true Idaho fashion we will not spend money until it’s in the bank,” Little said.

State of the State reaction

Even though Little did not call for funding Ybarra’s school safety plan, she praised his decisions to prioritize education spending.

“I am very pleased about raising the starting teacher salary,” Ybarra said. “Very excited that he is going to make sure that education is the top priority moving forward and also that he is really keen in understanding how important literacy is.”

Ybarra also backed Little’s call for a new K-12 task force.

“That’s how you get buy-in. That’s how you get folks at the table. That’s how you should do things. And not do things in a vacuum.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, praised Little for putting forth “a very upbeat and optimistic” speech. But Bedke said Little was “strangely silent on the public school funding formula.” As a member of the interim committee that worked for three years to develop a proposed rewritten funding formula, Bedke said the state has put a lot of resources and effort into the plan.

Little’s staff said the new governor did not put money in his 2020 budget request for a funding rewrite because the proposal would not have any budget implications until 2021.

When asked by Idaho Education News whether he thinks the House will pass a school funding rewrite this year, Bedke said, “We expect that.”

In the Democratic response to the State of the State, House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, expressed a willingness to work with Little on developing bipartisan policies.

Although they pushed back on some things and pledged to introduce their own legislation to move their agenda forward, Democrats praised Little for prioritizing education and for pledging to implement the voter-approved Medicaid expansion.

Stennett said she went into her “happy dance” listening to the tone of Little’s speech, while Erpelding pointed out Little has embraced some policies that Idaho Democrats have championed for years.

“With Gov. Little comes an opportunity for a fresh start that Idaho needs,” Stennett said. “He has the ability to correct past mistakes and ensure a better quality of life for Idahoans.”

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