Critchfield seeks $92 million to plug school budget gap

(UPDATED, 2:39 p.m., to clarify that the $92 million is not new funding.)

State superintendent Debbie Critchfield has turned in her budget request for next year — and a sizable request for this year.

She is asking for slightly more than $92 million for the current school year — backfill to cover the transition back to a K-12 funding formula based on student attendance.

“The Idaho Legislature and governor have made historic investments in the K-12 budget … and we want schools to have access to this appropriation,” Critchfield’s State Department of Education says in its budget request, submitted late last week.

The $92 million request marks the latest development in a debate over the formula — and how the state divvies up dollars for 115 school districts and 78 charter schools.

For years, Idaho has based the formula on average daily student attendance. But as in-person attendance dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, Idaho adopted a model based instead on student enrollment. Many educators say the enrollment-based model is more predictable — and because student attendance lags below enrollment, they say an attendance-based formula will strip tens of millions of dollars from the K-12 budget. Supporters of the attendance-based model, including Gov. Brad Little, say the state should encourage school leaders to address and reduce absenteeism.

Critchfield’s request — designed to offset this year’s projected funding loss — could pit the superintendent against supporters of the attendance-based approach, including Little.

The $92 million does not represent new money, Gideon Tolman, the SDE’s chief financial officer, said Tuesday afternoon. It is money that would have gone out to districts, largely to cover salaries and benefits. But because of the shift to attendance-based funding, the money would instead wind up in state budget reserves.

Critchfield’s budget request begins a process that will unfold over the next several months.

All state department heads, including Critchfield, are required to turn in budget requests by Sept. 1.

Then the governor gets a say, submitting his budget recommendation in January, at the start of the legislative session.

Lawmakers then get their chance to weigh in, and vote on a battery of budget bills drafted by the Legislature’s Joint-Finance Appropriations Committee. All spending bills the Legislature passes go to the governor’s desk.

Usually, it takes until March or April for this work to wrap up. But since the $92 million represents a “supplemental” appropriation — to cover costs for the current budget year, which ends June 30 — it’s likely the Legislature will act on this request earlier in the session.

For the new budget year, which begins July 1, Critchfield is seeking about $120 million in new funding. This would represent roughly a 4% increase in the public schools budget.

This year’s Legislature put about $2.7 billion into K-12.

A few highlights from Critchfield’s request:

Teacher pay: The proposal includes an additional $46.9 million for the career ladder, covering staff salaries and benefits.

Outcomes-based funding. Critchfield wants to tie $40 million to three goals: reading scores from kindergarten through fourth grade; fifth- through ninth-grade math scores; and high school performance tied to college or career readiness. “We are seeking an alignment of investments with goals as a driving factor for achievement,” the SDE says in its budget request.

Student teaching. Critchfield wants to launch a three-year pilot to pay student-teachers. At $3 million a year for three years, the pilot would support up to 500 aspiring teachers attending the state’s colleges of education.

The discussion of the funding formula has already shaped Critchfield’s request.

Critchfield has assembled a committee to look at rewriting the K-12 funding formula for the first time in nearly three decades. As Critchfield foreshadowed during the group’s first meeting in July, she submitted a streamlined plan that would convert seven K-12 budget bills into three bills.

The committee still has its more difficult work ahead — including the question of whether to base funding on attendance or enrollment.

“This K-12 budget request is a critical first step in the continuation of the efforts to update our state’s 30-year school funding formula,” Critchfield said in a news release. “We’re taking a phased approach.”

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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