(UPDATED, 3:05 p.m. Wednesday, with comment from Little.)
A citizens group is encouraging Idahoans to fight back against a $115 million K-12 budget cut — as some educators call out Gov. Brad Little, in personal terms.
But the $115 million cut might not materialize. The money remains on the table.
In an online petition drive, Reclaim Idaho members and supporters are urging Gov. Brad Little to “keep his promise” to add $330 million to the public schools budget for the next spending year, which begins July 1. The increase won’t reach $330 million, and will instead come in at $215 million, Reclaim says. That’s because Little and the 2023 Legislature rescinded a pandemic-era funding formula based on enrollment, and again tied funding to student attendance — an inherently smaller number than overall student enrollment.
“If this issue goes unaddressed, school districts across the state will feel the impact,” says the petition, signed by more than 5,600 people as of Wednesday morning. “Some districts will see layoffs of teachers and support staff. Others will be forced to increase class sizes, eliminate positions for counselors and librarians, or hold back promised salary increases.”
Through a spokeswoman, Little defended this year’s K-12 budget bills — which actually increased spending by $381 million — while emphasizing the importance of attendance in school.
“Gov. Little believes education should be in-person and student-focused in order to improve student outcomes,” Madison Hardy said Wednesday. “We will continue to monitor efforts to improve school attendance to pre-pandemic levels and will make any necessary adjustments in collaboration with the Legislature, education leaders, and stakeholders.”
Reclaim’s claim that $115 million is on the chopping block stems from a recent spreadsheet from a state budget analyst. The document — from Jared Tatro, deputy division manager of the state’s Legislative Services Office — has been widely distributed among legislators.
Based on Tatro’s math, the attendance-based model requires the state to fund fewer school “support units,” a multiplier that resembles a classroom. The number of “support units” rises and falls based on attendance rates, but it always comes in lower than the number of enrollment-based support units.
Here’s where the math gets trickier. While there are fewer attendance-based “support units,” each one is worth more money. According to Tatro’s spreadsheet, schools will still receive at least $215 million in additional money for 2023-24.
Making things even more complicated, that $215 million increase could swell.
In all, an additional $206.5 million is available: money funded by the 2023 Legislature. More than half of that money was earmarked for salaries; the rest was penciled in for benefits, insurance or discretionary spending. That money is available to fund schools, if attendance numbers climb in 2023-24 and justify an additional number of support units.
Tatro based his spreadsheet on 2022-23 attendance rates that hovered at 89% to 90%. If attendance rebounds to pre-pandemic rates of close to 95% next school year, schools would receive upwards of $100 million in additional funding, Tatro said.
If attendance rates remain in the 89% to 90% range, the additional state dollars would land in Public Education Stabilization Fund, a rainy-day fund.
This data point underscores the point that the state has the additional money to send out to schools, says Reclaim co-founder Luke Mayville.
“It’s being held back,” Mayville said Tuesday. “This pot of money does not do any good for Idaho students if it does not go out to the school districts.”
While seemingly arcane, the debate over enrollment- or attendance-based funding has been a contentious matter at the Statehouse. Supporters of the enrollment-based approach say it is more predictable, and better reflects student mobility. Supporters of the attendance-based approach say it gives schools a financial incentive to make sure their students are learning in a classroom whenever possible.
In 2022, Little vetoed a bill to extend enrollment-based funding through 2023-24. The State Board of Education, comprised largely of Little appointees, voted to keep the enrollment-based approach intact on a temporary basis. But that rule expires on June 30, and the State Board has acknowledged that this sunset could reduce next year’s school funding by more than $100 million.
Little is the focal point of Reclaim’s petition. The group wants the governor to call on the State Board to keep the enrollment-based funding formula intact.
In this petition drive, Reclaim has also collected about 100 first-person accounts from teachers, school administrators and trustees from across Idaho. Several unnamed teachers directed their remarks at Little.
“I have lost track of the amount of times that educators have been promised things, only to be let down,” said one teacher from Kimberly. “If you want to keep teachers, keep your promises.”
“It appears I’ve been lied to about supporting my school,” said a kindergarten teacher from Castleford. “How can I continue in my career under such deceit!”
Please don’t back out on us,” said a special education teacher from Weiser.
Reclaim and Little have some history on school funding issues.
In 2022, Reclaim pushed for a voter initiative seeking to siphon $330 million of tax increases into K-12. Little responded by convening a one-day special legislative session in September, convincing lawmakers to pass $650 million in tax cuts and $410 million in new education funding, including the $330 million for K-12. Reclaim later pulled its initiative.