Gov. Brad Little on Monday said he recently visited some of Idaho’s “crumbling, leaking, falling apart” public schools. One school had raw sewage seeping under the floor.
In his annual State of the State address, the second-term Republican asked lawmakers to invest $2 billion in school facilities over the next decade.
“The can we’re kicking is getting heavier and we’re running out of road,” Little said.
The largest ever state investment in school facilities, according to the governor’s office, is part of Little’s recommendations to spend $5.3 billion in state funds next fiscal year. He spoke to all 105 legislators, the state’s constitutional officers and justices of the Idaho Supreme Court.
The State of the State speech and Budget Highlights
The exact mechanism for funding school facilities will be ironed out over the next few months, Alex Adams, Little’s budget director, told reporters Monday. It could include a $1 billion state bond to help school districts with capital projects, along with increased maintenance funding.
“We’re not coming in and saying ‘This is the plan,'” Adams said. “We’re coming to the Legislature saying, ‘Let’s work together. Let’s figure out the best plan that works for every district in every corner of the state.'”
Lawmakers responded to Little’s proposal cautiously. Both House Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star, and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, separately said, “The devil is in the details.”
“It is a long-term investment in facilities, but it’s also some long-term debt,” Horman said.
Moyle said he’s concerned about over-obligating the state’s sales tax revenue. Under the governor’s proposal, sales tax revenue would serve as a dedicated source of funds to guarantee the school facilities bond.
Little told reporters Monday that he and his staff are “very cognizant” of over-committing sales tax revenue. And he dismissed concerns about taking on long-term debt. He compared it to buying a mortgage after securing a pay raise.
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“You got a guaranteed source of money coming in,” Little said.
Education leaders praised Little’s speech. State Board of Education President Linda Clark said she “wholeheartedly support(s)” the plan to fix “dilapidated school facilities throughout Idaho.”
State Superintendent Debbie Critchfield said the proposal shows how the state is taking a “comprehensive” approach to education — by addressing facilities on top of teacher salaries, health insurance and other school funding issues.
“To me, this was this last, but big, chunk of the education pie that needed help,” Critchfield told EdNews following Little’s speech.
Overall, Little is asking for a $220 million — 8% — year-over-year increase to K-12 public schools. He’s also proposing a 4% increase for community colleges and 3% for colleges and universities. That includes a $32 million boost for colleges and universities to expand building capacity, with separate proposals for each school.
Little also endorsed Critchfield’s $40 million pitch for outcome-based K-12 funding. The funding would be tied to three goals: reading scores from kindergarten to fourth grade, math scores from fifth to ninth grade and high school performance tied to college or career readiness.
Critchfield said she expects the “modern” funding model will drive the classroom results that parents and policymakers expect.
“We’re incentivizing our districts to get that job done,” Critchfield said.
Little is also pushing for a second $75 million tranche for Idaho Launch, Little’s controversial program that subsidizes workforce training for recent high school graduates. While many Republican lawmakers oppose the program, it’s been popular among high schoolers — more than 12,500 seniors have applied in less than three months, surpassing the amount of funds available.
“We don’t want our employers to import workers from other places when we can train our own kids right here at home,” Little said.
Democrats lauded the proposal, pledging to support fully funding the program. “It offers an unprecedented path to opportunity for Idaho’s youth,” Senate Minority Leader Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, told reporters.
But many Republicans remain skeptical, after most GOP lawmakers voted against the program last year. “It’s another government handout,” Moyle said Monday. The speaker expressed support for an amendment to the program that would allow the state to claw back unused funds.
The governor’s office is also proposing a bill that will “cut red tape” for charter schools. Adams, who served as interim director of the Idaho Public Charter School Commission last year, unveiled a draft of the bill last month.
The proposal would amend the initial charter term from five years to six years, and schools that meet their six-year performance criteria could be renewed for a 12-year term. It would grant three-year, “pilot” terms to innovative charter models.
Amid an ongoing debate over whether to use state funds to help private school families pay for tuition, Little has touted Idaho’s existing array of “school choice.”
A pair of Republicans on Friday unveiled a proposal to create private school tax credits. The bill, from Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, would allow private school families to claim $5,000 credits to cover tuition and other education expenses.
Little hasn’t explicitly said he opposes such policies, but on Monday he repeated that he won’t support proposals that drain funds that could go to public schools — one of the primary criticisms lobbed at school voucher schemes.
“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 our public schools,” Little said.
This story will be updated throughout the day with reaction from other state leaders. Photos by EdNews’ photographers Brandon Schertler and Darren Svan.