Analysis: Seeking to build a K-12 legacy, Little could face a Statehouse showdown

He didn’t use the “l” word, but Gov. Brad Little sought to burnish his education legacy Monday.

He proposed an unprecedented plan to use state dollars to address local school building needs. He also doubled down on Idaho Launch, his program to provide high school graduates with up to $8,000 apiece for college or job training.

Little made another thing clear in his State of the State address Monday afternoon: His education legacy has little space for private school tax credits or scholarships or anything else that falls under the loose rubric of “school choice.” And that sets up a potential fight — over dollars and emphasis — in this election-year legislative session.

During his 41-minute State of the State address, Little made an aggressive push to move Idaho heavily in the school construction business. He wants to put $200 million into facilities: $125 million for construction costs, and $75 million for maintenance. It’s a down payment on a 10-year, $2 billion program, although lawmakers would be by no means obligated to fund the program for the full decade.

Little made a skillful pitch. Describing the need, he cited Salmon, Idaho’s reigning poster child for bad facilities and failed bond issues: “Raw sewage is seeping into a space under a cafeteria.” But Little also knows what makes legislators tick. Repeatedly, he presented his facilities plan as a 10-year, $2 billion property tax cut.

Lawmakers gather on the House floor for Gov. Brad Little’s State of the State address Monday.

He received a rare standing ovation from some of the lawmakers crammed into House chambers. Although it’s fair to wonder whether these lawmakers are more excited about fixing schools or election-year property tax relief.

Either way, Little is asking lawmakers to do something they and their predecessors have staunchly refused to do for decades. The Legislature has willfully left school districts to pay for facilities pretty much on their own — despite a 2005 order from the state Supreme Court, and a damning 2022 state report that pegged the need, loosely, at $847 million.

But the reliance on local property taxes, and voter approved bond issues, hasn’t just been a problem in Salmon. It was a problem in Pocatello, where voters in November rejected a bond issue months after a fire destroyed parts of Highland High School. And when the fast-growing and crowded West Ada School District pushed a plant facilities levy to address a decade’s worth of facilities needs while avoiding long-term debt, voters said no to that, too.

Perhaps there are enough case studies and cautionary tales across the state to convince a majority of lawmakers to sign onto Little’s facilities plan.

Little is also trying to cobble together a statewide core of Launch supporters. Little turned part of his State of the State address over to a video presentation — which included testimonials from eight high school seniors who have applied for Launch grants. Little also told lawmakers to look for an email tallying the number of seniors who have applied for Launch grants — by legislative districts.

By those numbers, Launch has been a rousing hit. More than 12,500 seniors have applied for the grants, smashing first-year expectations and outstripping the $75 million a divided Legislature budgeted a year ago.

Little is asking for another $75 million for Launch this year. But Launch barely passed a year ago, over vehement opposition from legislative conservatives. The best-case scenario for Launch this year might be another round of sharp Statehouse scrutiny; the worst-case scenario might be calls to kill the program in its tracks.

Little’s budget includes $200 million for facilities and $75 million for Launch. It doesn’t include $50 million for the private school tax credit bill unveiled by school choice advocates Friday.

And Little seemed to go out of his way to preempt the school choice debate. He cited Idaho’s new open enrollment law, touted a growing charter school movement and promised to offer a bill to cut charter red tape. But he also drew a line. “I will continue to support a fair, responsible, transparent and accountable approach to expanding school choice in Idaho — one that does not draw resources away from public schools.”

Using public moneys for private schools is, of course, the point of a tax credit or scholarship bill — and the central conundrum of school choice. And while Little’s school facilities plan reverses a century of state precedent, so too would a private school tax credit bill. For lawmakers looking to advance school choice, this would be a legacy-builder, in a year when all 105 legislators are on the ballot.

After Little’s speech, House Speaker Mike Moyle said he believes there is room in the budget to address public school facilities and private education.

“I think there’s an incentive this year to find a solution,” said Moyle, R-Star. “I think the tax credit’s got more support than some of the other methods. I think this year you’ll see that issue get to the governor’s desk. What he does with it, I don’t know.”

Unlike Moyle, House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel takes no comfort in the $50 million cap in the tax credit bill. She says there’s no room in the budget to launch a school choice program that would grow unchecked, as it has in other states, swamping Little’s school facilities initiative.

“The facilities money that the governor’s putting forth is bare bones,” said Rubel, D-Boise. “The money that is in there is not adequate, but it’s critically necessary.”

Little didn’t speak in terms of either-or propositions Monday, but he did lay the groundwork. With federal COVID-19 aid spoken for, and revenue growth receding to pre-pandemic levels, the state can’t do everything. “This session should be about priorities.”

If Little’s serious — and he pushes a historic school facilities plan over an unprecedented private school tax credit bill — this is shaping up to be a showdown.

More reading: More State of the State coverage from Idaho EdNews’ Ryan Suppe.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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