Education budget is ‘depressing’

As a legislator, we hear a lot of presentations from different people, and it can be hard to see the big picture. This last week, as a member of the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, I heard Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna present his proposed budget for Idaho public schools. He made a point of telling us how well Idaho schools were doing but he wanted to focus on the main problem: not enough high school graduates were going on to get training after their high school diploma. In the days before, we had heard from the colleges and universities in Idaho. They relayed their budget requests and described the successes and needs of their institutions. And three weeks ago, I listened to business and industry leaders in Idaho forecast their expectations for the economy in the coming year. I believe the dots connect and indicate a clear choice.

Sen. Dan Schmidt is a Democrat from District 5

Let’s start with the forecast. Most businesses expect slow but moderate growth in the short term. The committee charged with developing an estimate of revenue for the state settled on accepting Governor Otter’s prediction of 5 percent growth in revenue. Of note, we heard from the Department of Labor that Idaho has the lowest wages in the country.

The colleges noted that one of their greatest challenges was attracting and retaining good staff and faculty, since Idaho has very low wages that aren’t competitive with surrounding states. Still, most asked for no wage increase which is consistent with the governor’s recommendation.

Then we have Superintendent Luna describing funding for software to track school, teacher and student performance, but only requesting a 3 percent increase in public school funding, with only a 1.6 percent increase in teacher pay. And he was more generous than Governor Otter who stated education funding was a priority in his budget address, predicted a 5 percent growth in revenue but only suggested a 2 percent increase in school funding.

And the problem is that kids don’t want to invest in higher education? What bright young person, paying attention to the direction their adult leadership is taking this state, would dare to make an investment in such a future when our elected leaders don’t want to make such an investment? As we were told by the Department of Labor, people ages 25-35 with 2 years of post-high school training are leaving the state. Our kids aren’t dumb, folks. They are paying attention and making wise choices. I wish we could inspire them with ours.

We have a governor who says he places a priority on education, and only devotes half as much as he can to the investment. Luna, the elected advocate for education, goes out on a limb and suggests two-thirds of what we could afford. Who are they saving this money for?

I think I know and I’ll bet you do too. Last year, we gave a $39 million tax break to the highest earners. This year the governor wants to give another tax break to big business through the repeal of the business personal property tax. Where are our priorities? Our kids know.

The details of the education budget are unimaginative and depressing. Superintendent Luna wants more money for computer software that most districts find useless. He steals money for this from transportation funding that will require a change in the law that is waiting in the wings, unseen. Does he really believe in this budget or does he want our committee to inspire? Well, I’ll do my best.

I want to make this state a place my children can proudly call home and someday, when they can afford it, serve. But in the meantime, we need to get to work to build our economy so that they believe our state is worth their investment. What better place to invest than education? We can show them we believe it is worth ours.