We made a promise to our schools when the Idaho Legislature enacted HB1, a $330 million school funding boost last fall. No one could seriously argue against the dire urgency. On top of a $1 billion backlog in school facilities needs, schools were struggling with basic operations, and low salaries led to vacancies and disruptive turnover. At the same time, Reclaim Idaho’s pending ballot initiative to boost school funding finally had Republican lawmakers’ backs up against the wall. Idaho Democrats were thrilled to finally address school investment.
Idahoans overwhelmingly backed this move, with 80% supporting an advisory question on the November 2022 ballot. Unfortunately, rather than protecting and expanding learning opportunities for the coming year, many of our schools and districts are now considering layoffs and other cost-cutting measures because of an unfair and outdated funding formula. School leaders expect a funding reduction of $140 million, meaning they will receive a little more than half the boost they were promised.
Idaho is one of a handful of states that calculates school funding on average daily attendance instead of more reliable measurements like enrollment. Widely considered to be the most inequitable way of calculating funding, average daily attendance often undercounts enrollment, particularly for students with the most challenges.
While this funding formula has long been a problem, the COVID pandemic amplified it by causing severe volatility in attendance. Recognizing this, the Idaho Board of Education wisely voted to switch to enrollment-based funding. But, this temporary rule change is set to expire at the end of the school year.
The return to attendance-based funding means schools will lose millions of dollars. Idaho’s largest district, West Ada, will have $18 million less than expected. Districts will have to scramble to manage these shortfalls and learning opportunities will suffer. For example, funds earmarked to increase wages for teachers and paraprofessionals or expand career technical programs may be redirected to cover basic operating expenses like utilities. In a news interview, Twin Falls School District Superintendent Brady Dickson warned, “For most districts around the state, they’re gonna have to reduce staff.”
This didn’t have to happen. During the 2022 legislative session, all Democratic legislators — along with a number of Republicans — voted to extend enrollment-based funding through the coming year. The legislation also called for an interim committee to explore a permanent solution for funding calculations. Frustratingly, Gov. Little vetoed the bill, despite pleas from teachers, school boards, and the public.
While the nuances of school funding are complex, the bottom line is that schools deserve reliable adequate funding. Without action, the positive effects of HB1 will be severely diminished and our promise to Idaho’s children will go unfulfilled.