Education ranks at the top of nearly every list of Idahoans’ top priorities. For anyone interested in listening to the voice of the people there’s no way around it: Increasing educational opportunities and outcomes for our citizens is essential to Idaho’s continued success – and we have plenty of room for improvement.
However, some folks with the means to buy advertising space and air time paint a pretty bleak picture of where we are and the direction we’re heading with Idaho’s education system. So I thought it was time to offer my own view of how we compare with the rest of the country.
It turns out that by many measures Idaho public schools are doing much better than the naysayers would have you believe.
Idaho ranks third among states with 49 percent of our general fund being spent on K-12 education, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. Only Alabama and Indiana spend a higher percentage of their general fund tax dollars on public schools. Idaho’s per-pupil spending has been steadily increasing as we’ve implemented the five-year plan from my Task Force for Improving Education. It now is over $9,000 — the majority in general fund dollars.
As we recovered from the Great Recession, Idaho’s K-12 appropriations increased at a higher rate than our growth in general fund tax revenue. The public school funds cut during the recession have been restored and strategic investments have been made in teacher salaries and professional development, technology, college and career advising, and early reading skills.
Contrary to the drumbeat of misinformation that Idaho is setting up students for failure, the reality is that Idaho students typically score in the middle of the pack on national achievement tests. The latest scores on the National Assessment for Education Progress show Idaho students in fourth and eighth grades performed well compared to the national average in both reading and math. In fact, Idaho’s eighth-grade students were outperformed in reading by only Massachusetts and schools operated by the U.S. Department of Defense.
In the latest Quality Counts report from Education Week, Idaho gets a D- for per-pupil spending but a C for student achievement. It’s important to note that no state gets an overall A in the report – not even Massachusetts, which is widely considered to have one of the world’s best education systems. It got a B.
Talking with my counterparts across the country makes it clear that Idaho is the envy of many states for our ability to find consensus on and sustainably invest in our K-12 education priorities. We are starting to see the impact of our strategic investments with increases in the number of students earning postsecondary credit in high school, improvement in our graduation rate, and more students making informed decisions about college and career opportunities.
Our gains in student achievement so far are modest, and we can and should do more to ensure that Idaho students get a high-quality education through our public schools. But even our measured, incremental progress belies the claims of those constantly browbeating Idahoans with admonitions not to fail.
We’re not, and we won’t.
I encourage the next governor and the Idaho Legislature to keep making education a top priority. Idaho must put our best foot forward for our K-12 students. It’s up to us to ensure they’re ready for success in college or postsecondary training as they prepare for career opportunities and more prosperity for Idaho families.
Written by Butch Otter, governor of Idaho.