Before the pandemic, lawmakers spent three years trying to rewrite Idaho’s byzantine school funding formula. They failed.
Now, state superintendent Debbie Critchfield wants to finish the job — in barely six weeks.
On Wednesday morning, Critchfield packed a conference room with a powerful group of politicos and education group representatives. She and her State Department of Education senior team seek a formula that’s simpler, more responsive to local needs and aligned with the state Constitution’s mandate of a thorough, uniform system of public schools.
And she wants all this done by Sept. 1, when her 2024-25 budget request is due to Gov. Brad Little. With this year’s $2.7 billion K-12 budget as the launching point, she wants to build next year’s numbers around a new formula. Then she wants the 2024 Legislature to rewrite education laws, as needed, to implement the new formula.
Other than that, Critchfield isn’t asking for much.
“We’re not going to spend time admiring our problem,” Critchfield told the committee.
State superintendent Debbie Critchfield never publicly announced that she was putting together a committee to try to rewrite Idaho’s school funding formula. The committee met for the first time Wednesday — and this meeting also went unannounced.
Idaho Education News received a tip in advance about Wednesday’s meeting, and attended.
“Superintendent Critchfield and the Department of Education meet regularly with stakeholders on important issues in Idaho public education like curriculum, behavioral health and school finance,” spokesman Scott Graf said Thursday. “The stakeholders the superintendent deemed to be central to the school funding conversation at this point in the process have been invited to join the discussion.”
This behind-the-scenes process is a departure from Idaho’s last attempt to rewrite the funding formula. When a legislative committee studied the formula from 2016 to 2018, its meetings were open and publicized in advance. Legislative committees are subject to Idaho’s open meetings law.
Critchfield’s committee is expected to meet again in about two weeks. “In terms of publicizing the group’s work, the plan is to maintain the current course,” Graf said.
No one can accuse Critchfield of lacking for a sense of urgency; six months into her term, she is leaning into a monumental job. The implications are as far-reaching as her timetable is ambitious. The formula carves up money to educate more than 310,000 Idaho students. It sets aside money specifically to help kindergartners through third-graders master reading. And provides money to cover laptops and Chromebooks in a changing school climate. And requests well north of $1 billion for salaries and benefits designed to attract and keep teachers.
A funding formula isn’t just arithmetic. If it works right, it should be an artistic piece of public policy, funding student success and sustainable community schools.
The current formula is, well, more like an antique.
“We have a Model A system living in a Tesla world,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, dropping a one-liner that got a lot of mileage during Wednesday’s meeting.
Model A is an exaggeration. Think Ford Taurus — the top-selling passenger car in 1994. Because that’s the last time the Legislature rewrote the K-12 funding formula.
But it wasn’t for lack of effort.
The Legislature put together a committee in 2016 to study the funding formula, and work on a rewrite. The committee tried to pass a full-blown rewrite in 2019; the best they could manage was a modest law that essentially created definitions for a “student-based funding formula.”
Critchfield believes the new committee can build off the work from this previous, aborted mission. And her committee co-chairs — Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls — are veterans from that battle.
One big thing has changed since 2016, and the advent of the Legislature’s funding formula committee: the bottom line.
In 2016-17, Idaho’s K-12 budget came in at slightly less than $1.6 billion. Since then, the budget has increased by 70%. Enrollment has increased by roughly 8%. Since a funding formula rewrite is, by definition, a redistribution of dollars, it could help to have more dollars to go around.
The opportunity wasn’t lost on Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, a co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. The state is now better prepared to redistribute its K-12 dollars, he said, “and maybe better (prepared) than two years from now, when we’re in another recession.”
The challenge is stripping out pieces of the education budget that don’t work, and keep districts and charters from fully leveraging their money, Critchfield said after Wednesday’s meeting.
“We have more money in this system than we have ever had,” she said. “Why do districts still feel poor? Because we’re not able to capture it.”
As a starting point, Critchfield and her staff showed up Wednesday with a handout: a proposal to streamline the budget-writing process. But essentially, the proposal moves around budget line items, including many that have been in state law for years.
“It’s a different way to present a budget,” said Horman, JFAC’s House co-chair, after Wednesday’s meeting.
Things get tougher when — or if — this committee decides to eliminate line items, to provide local districts and charters more money to use at their discretion. The line items have built-in bases of support, a fact that was readily apparent Wednesday.
Matthew Reiber, Little’s education adviser, said his boss will want to preserve the state’s $72.8 million literacy line item. Melba school trustee Jason Knopp and Idaho Education Association executive director Paul Stark echoed Reiber’s pitch for the career ladder, Idaho’s teacher salary plan. Jonathan Gillen, chief operations officer for the West Ada School District, said the state should keep its $36.5 million technology line item, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Wednesday’s opening meeting didn’t even try to answer some other big questions.
A new funding formula could likely have some kind of a “weighting” system, providing schools with additional money to serve at-risk students. The committee didn’t talk about what a weighting system would look like.
The committee also didn’t address an elephant in the room: should a formula ultimately distribute money based on student enrollment or student attendance? Since attendance lags behind enrollment, some school leaders say the shift back to attendance-based funding will strip tens of millions of dollars from K-12 budgets. Backers of attendance-based funding — led by Little — say the state should do everything it can to incentivize keeping kids in the classroom.
Critchfield is suggesting some form of weighted per-student funding, but even she isn’t sure what that will look like. She thinks the committee might split the difference — an enrollment model that covers the fixed costs of school, regardless of absentee rates, and an attendance model that rightfully places a premium on getting kids into school.
The committee needs to work through a lot of questions, and there isn’t a lot of time.
“I thought it was a good first step, and I was encouraged by the will around the table to make changes to the formula,” Den Hartog said after Wednesday’s three-hour meeting. “I believe there are still hard conversations ahead.”
Horman is also optimistic. But like Den Hartog, she wants to see a forward-thinking funding formula — one that can react to student needs years into the future. And the state has the money to make a real change. “That’s why I’m concerned about tweaks rather than transformation,” she said after the meeting.
Around the table Wednesday, a consensus emerged: after 30 years, it’s time to trade in a Taurus funding formula. The committee will meet again in about two weeks, and Critchfield believes the group can meet her aggressive deadline.
“That doesn’t scare me or worry me,” Critchfield said. “We’ve got to have solutions.”
Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.