Idaho lawmakers return to Boise next week for what’s likely to be a truculent legislative session, with a May primary election looming and several unresolved K-12 public school issues hanging in the balance.
Debates over “school choice” and Idaho’s much-maligned school funding formula will resurface. And lawmakers may address lagging school facility financing, although it’s unclear exactly how — one proposal would require altering the Idaho Constitution, a lofty hurdle.
Public schools are coming off major budget increases in 2023 — including for teacher pay, which surpassed $60,000 on average for the first time — and spending again is top of mind for policymakers and education lobbyists ahead of the upcoming session.
Gov. Brad Little told reporters Thursday that education remains his top priority. The second-term Republican may have some tough decisions in the coming months, depending on which bills reach his desk after negotiation and compromise among lawmakers.
“That’s always the name of politics: What’s out there? What do we think we can get through?” said Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “It is shaping up to be a very full session as far as education issues.”
At least one more voucher debate…with a twist
When it comes to horse-trading, a school voucher mechanism is the prized thoroughbred among many Idaho Republicans.
After years of failed attempts to open up public funding for private schooling, Republicans will float several new ideas this session. The proposal with the most steam would create a private school tax credit, according to multiple lawmakers and policy experts.
Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, and co-chairs of the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, and Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, plan to announce the legislation Friday. (Check Friday afternoon for our story on the details).
The bill would create a refundable tax credit to cover private school tuition and fees, tutoring and transportation, according to a news release. Speaking with reporters Thursday, Den Hartog shared few details but said, “We think we have a piece of legislation that will be pretty exciting.”
Idaho Democrats as well as groups representing public school boards and teachers staunchly oppose voucher mechanisms for fear they would drain limited public school funds.
“They are budget busters,” Quinn Perry, policy and government affairs director for the Idaho School Boards Association, told EdNews this week. “We don’t have to look very far to see where our neighboring states in the union have really struggled to actually keep up with these.”
Vouchers and voucher-like mechanisms, such as education savings accounts (ESAs), have also divided the Legislature’s GOP supermajority. Last year, a handful of Republicans on the House Education Committee stalled momentum for education savings account legislation from the Senate.
It will take some convincing to sway the committee, which could decide whether a voucher bill lives or dies. House Education Chairwoman Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, a former school principal, said her committee again will measure a new bill using the same “constitutional yardstick” as last year.
“How does it help us develop and maintain a system of thorough, free, common schools?” said Yamamoto, referring to the state constitution’s directive for the Legislature to support public schools.
Constitutional amendment seeks to help aging schools
Whether the Legislature is fulfilling that constitutional mandate has been called into question of late, amid increased attention on the state of public school buildings.
In 2022, the Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations estimated about $850 million is needed to get Idaho school buildings into good condition. Some school superintendents told the Idaho Statesman and ProPublica last year that they need five or more major facility upgrades, from heating and cooling to accessibility improvements for people with disabilities.
Lent, a former Idaho Falls School District trustee, is working on a bill with Rep. Rod Furniss, R-Rigby, that seeks to help schools fund those projects. Idaho is one of two states that requires a supermajority — two-thirds — for a bond to pass. Furniss and Lent’s proposal would decrease the threshold to a simple majority — 50% — for high-turnout elections, like when the president is on the ballot.
That “incentive process” would likely lead to more successful bond elections, and those elections would be decided by a greater number of voters, Lent said. The Statesman first reported the proposal.
“Most of our districts feel beat down, and it’s getting worse and worse every year,” Lent told EdNews.
A constitutional amendment is required to lower the bond threshold. And a constitutional amendment itself needs supermajority support from the Legislature along with majority support from Idaho voters. While that’s a high bar, other proposals to address school facility financing likely are on the horizon.
“We’ve ignored it too long,” Yamamoto said. “I’ve heard some pretty interesting — and I would go so far as to say exciting — possibilities for addressing school facilities.”
Little, who is delivering his State of the State address and budget recommendations Monday, told reporters he will prioritize school facilities this session, but declined to elaborate.
A new funding formula?
Meanwhile, school leaders are hoping for long-term solutions to stabilize school finances, whether that’s a sustainable source for facilities or a more predictable annual budgeting process.
This school year, the state reverted back to an attendance-based funding formula, which divides money based on average attendance. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Idaho school districts temporarily received funds based on enrollment, a process that school leaders have long advocated to make permanent for its stability and predictability.
Democrats on Thursday noted a potential $161 million cut to public schools from the reversion to attendance-based funding. If a supplemental appropriation isn’t approved this session to account for the lost funds, the attendance-based decrease could claw back a major portion of the $381 million windfall schools got last year.
“We made some strides last year, but we didn’t deliver the boost in education funding that was promised,” Assistant House Minority Leader Rep. Lauren Necochea, D-Boise, told reporters Thursday.
Republican state superintendent Debbie Critchfield’s task force to study potential formula changes built some momentum to update the formula heading into the session. But after several meetings in recent months, the committee didn’t make a recommendation on attendance-based funding, which still has broad support among Republicans.
School leaders had ample notice of the switch back to attendance funding, Den Hartog noted Thursday. She also acknowledged that students are increasingly absent, and school funding could accommodate flexible attendance while still providing adequate money to schools.
“I think we’re going to have a continued discussion, and maybe find some compromises in the middle,” Den Hartog said.
Library bills return before GOP primary
An ongoing debate over content in libraries also remains unsettled, and lawmakers say they expect multiple bills to take another crack at regulating what’s accessible to children in school and public libraries.
Those proposals, and other social issues related to education, will likely be fodder for the May GOP primary election, which has been attracting campaign spending and early endorsements for months.
Republicans who opposed last year’s library bill — which would have made libraries civilly liable for distributing material considered “harmful” — have faced censure by the state GOP and their home precinct committees. Resistance to that bill has also been the subject of several attack ads on incumbent lawmakers.
Such dividing lines between Republicans will come into focus during the legislative session, Lent said.
“It will be much clearer for (voters) to make their decisions, as to what brand of Republican Party they’re more inclined to support,” he said.