Statehouse roundup, 3.4.24: Critchfield budget presentation sheds light on attendance funding gap

State superintendent Debbie Critchfield is standing by her request to plug a major hole in this year’s K-12 budget. 

On Monday, the Republican superintendent presented her annual spending requests to the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Critchfield’s most significant budget proposal for next year is a $40 million outcomes-based funding pilot program. 

But much of Monday’s discussion focused on a supplemental request for this budget year, which runs through June 30, and whether the Legislature will abide by its 2022 promise to increase public school funding by $330 million. Critchfield has asked lawmakers for $162 million to plug a gap blamed on a recent reversion to an attendance-based funding formula.

“We want to ensure that K-12 dollars that are committed to public schools stay with our public schools,” she told JFAC Monday. “This proposal is budget-neutral. The money was already appropriated, and we want those dollars to get to the schools.”

In 2022, the Legislature passed House Bill 1, which promised an additional $330 million in ongoing funding for K-12. The 2023 Legislature ultimately appropriated $380 million to the Department of Education, much of it going to teacher pay and discretionary funding. But lawmakers also allowed a pandemic-era funding formula based on enrollment to expire, reverting back to an attendance-based formula that gives schools less money.

A large chunk of funding given to the education department this year can’t be distributed to school districts under the attendance-based formula. Critchfield asked for $162 million in discretionary funding — money that school administrators can use for any purpose, but most often put toward personnel. 

The exact dollar amount schools stand to lose under the attendance formula has fluctuated. In December, the gap was $162 million, based on attendance numbers at the time. Now, it’s closer to $145 million, based on February attendance numbers, according to analysts with the Legislature. 

“It has been a moving target and has led to a lot of confusion in the districts,” Rep. Wendy Horman, co-chair of JFAC, told Idaho Education News after Monday’s meeting. “But I think what was made clear today is that $330 million is in the base (budget). It will go out one way or another.”

The $145 million shortfall isn’t all related to the funding formula reversion, according to Jared Tatro, a lead analyst with the Legislative Services Office. Three-quarters of it is tied to the reversion to the attendance-based formula while the other 25% would have come out of the school budget anyway. 

That’s because students are moving between public schools, including charters, Tatro said. Total public school enrollment only decreased by 95 students this year, but the formula produced a roughly 19,000-student decline. 

“A student here and there can impact support units,” said Tatro, referring to the metric used to divide public school funds. “We’ve seen increases in charter school counts but decreases in our traditional school district counts.”

Critchfield added that teachers and administrators are still struggling to get students to class after the COVID-19 pandemic. “We want those dollars to go to where those students are, and we believe we’re set up to do that,” she said. 

Here’s what else Critchfield and JFAC discussed: 

Insurance funding decrease. School districts could see funding for health insurance slashed by about $33 million. That translates to a reduction from $13,750 per employee to $13,000. 

Roughly half of the cut comes from the use of attendance-based funding — because insurance costs are distributed by support unit, roughly the cost to run a classroom. The other half of the cut is part of a statewide reduction in health insurance spending. 

After the state changed insurance carriers, Gov. Brad Little recommended a cut in funding for health insurance across state agencies. Only recently, school employees were added to the list of state workers affected by statewide insurance spending decisions.

The 2022 Legislature approved Little’s plan to set aside $75 million, an incentive for schools to move into the state’s health insurance plan. Less than a few dozen of Idaho’s 190 school districts and charter schools took the deal. 

“For some districts, it’s a better plan than what they could offer to their employees,” Gideon Tolman, chief financial officer for the Department of Education, told EdNews. “There are lots of districts (whose) plans are better than the state plan.” 

Little’s incentive strategy also tied school insurance appropriations to statewide insurance funding moving forward. Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking questioned whether schools’ insurance costs are decreasing commensurate with the state funding cut — and, if not, how they would make up the difference. 

Tatro said he couldn’t say whether costs are going down because most districts have different plans from the state. “Consistent with any other program, they would have to do that through either their discretionary funding, a levy or some other funds source,” he said.

Data collection audit. The Idaho Department of Education budget includes $84,400 for an auditor to ensure the state is funding school districts based on accurate data. 

About two years ago, legislative auditors found that the state department hadn’t been properly monitoring data submitted to the Idaho System for Education Excellence, the longitudinal data system, which supports funding calculations for school districts. 

“We’ve been going back and forth with the department to correct those audit findings, with some changes to the way that they oversee those audits,” said April Renfro, lead auditor for the Legislative Services Office. “My understanding is that this position would help do some of the pieces that they haven’t yet been able to get done.”

House Education works up its own budget wish list

The House Education Committee, meanwhile, has its own budget message for JFAC: Give K-12 the money it was promised last year.

The committee wants JFAC to send out the full $330 million earmarked for schools last year. And that includes the $145 million or more that remains in limbo due to the shift to attendance-based funding.

“There is a gap between what we voted for and what was disbursed,” said House Education chair Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, who is scheduled to go before JFAC Wednesday morning.

House Education is also recommending the $40 million for an outcomes-based funding. The committee passed an outcomes-based pilot bill Friday morning, and the House is likely to vote on it this week.

Traditionally, JFAC invites chairs from the policy-making committees to make recommendations on their members’ behalf. And while the education committees have say over policy proposals such as outcomes-based funding, committee members noted that JFAC will often chart its own course on spending issues.

“It’s an awkward moment,” said Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, a former House Education chair. “You’ll enjoy it.”

Holocaust education proposal heads to Senate

A Holocaust education resolution is one step closer to passage.

The Senate Education Committee unanimously approved House Concurrent Resolution 25. It calls on the Idaho Department of Education to adopt “age-appropriate Holocaust education in social studies classes.”

In essence, this means the state would need to consider Holocaust instruction every five years, when it reviews overall social studies standards. Local schools would then have the choice of choosing a curriculum that adheres to these standards.

HCR 25 now heads to the Senate floor.

Co-sponsored by a trio of House members — Reps. Stephanie Mickelsen, R-Idaho Falls; Ilana Rubel, D-Boise; and Josh Wheeler, R-Ammon — the resolution has already passed the House unanimously.

Classroom flag ban clears Senate

A bill that would bar public school employees from displaying flags on campus is heading to the House. 

The Senate overwhelmingly approved Senate Bill 1362 Monday. It would ban all flags from campuses other than those on a lengthy list of exceptions. 

Sponsoring Sen. Chris Trakel, R-Caldwell, said certain flags in a classroom could make students uncomfortable. He pointed to the LGBTQ+ Pride flag or a flag representing a rival sports team. “The best way to solve that issue, and to keep school doing what it’s supposed to do, is remove the possibility of that happening.”

The Senate voted 31-4 to endorse the bill. Three Democrats debated against it, saying it was unclear whether a flag could be displayed for educational purposes and that the state would have to perpetually add to the list of exemptions. 

“When we create a grocery list of items, it’s for sure we’re going to forget something,” said Senate Minority Leader Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise. “I hope that we could trust our teachers a little more than that.”

Exempt from the prohibition would be: 

  • The U.S. flag.
  • Flags of foreign nations.
  • Official flags of U.S. states and local governments.
  • Official school, college and university flags.
  • Flags of U.S. military branches and units.
  • Flags of Indian tribes.
  • Flags recognized by the Department of Education for achievements.
  • Flags representing school mascots or colors.
Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business. Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism.

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