When the Idaho Legislature convenes in a couple of months, we’ll be hearing plenty about the budget for public schools, the largest line item on the books. Along the way, we’ll hear the usual cries that quality education does not depend on the amount of money spent.
The Idaho Education Association, which fights for more education dollars, happens to agree with that point. Kari Overall, a former Boise teacher and president of the IEA, says it doesn’t matter if Idaho is at the bottom of most funding categories nationwide, or somewhere in the middle.
“The rankings are not as important as what’s inside the schools,” she says. “Every student should have access to a well-rounded public education … access to the arts, music, access to physical education, and access to advanced opportunity courses. They should have access to a school nurse, a psychologist and a social worker. They should be able to go to school five days a week and have access to technology.”
Overall says if Idaho could check off those boxes, then it doesn’t matter how Idaho stacks up with other states.
“But we can’t answer the question of whether we are providing the schools that our students deserve,” she says. “Until we can answer that question, and answer it well, then we need to continue to invest in our public schools.”
That’s not the heartwarming message that Idaho legislators want to hear as they prepare for the next session. As legislators will say from the Republican side, the budget for public schools represents nearly 50 percent of the total state budget, and Idaho can’t afford much more without creating a tax system that resembles Denmark.
In September, State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra revealed her budget proposal that calls for just more than a $100 million increase in education spending – a 5 percent increase. Gov. Brad Little will reveal his budget later, and that’s probably the one that will carry the day in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. But the superintendent’s budget typically is not far off from the governor’s figures.
“This budget request continues our emphasis on improving teacher compensation, enhancing student safety and well-being, and creating innovative, individualized ways to help students meet their potential and find success in academics and beyond,” Ybarra says. “Education stakeholders and Idaho families share those priorities and they also match up well with Gov. Little’s objectives to improve K-12 education in this state.”
The IEA president, who sees a lot of “what’s right” with Idaho schools, agrees with many of Ybarra’s points.
“Idaho has phenomenal educators who are working day in and day out to ensure that Idaho students have access to a quality public education,” Overall says. “In the last five years, we’ve seen a commitment from Idaho legislators to invest more money into the public education system, following massive cuts during the recession. We have a governor who is very pro-public education. Teamed together, it signals that everyone is working toward the same goal that we want what’s best for our students and for our state.”
But there’s plenty of room for improvement, with teacher pay being toward the top of the list. Overall says many of Idaho’s best and brightest instructors are going to other states for better pay.
In addition, she says, “Many districts are on four-day school weeks. Over 80 percent of the districts rely on supplemental levies to make up for what the state is not providing.”
Part of the problem with funding, she says, is that Idaho has not recovered from the recession. The healthy increases over the last five years barely keep up with inflation, and fall short of compensating for the increased number of students in the nation’s fastest growing state.
So, as Overall sees it, Idaho’s focus should not center on dollars spent or finding the next magic “silver-bullet” program for public schools. “Let’s create a picture of what we want our schools to look like and build a budget on making that happen.”
Those conversations do occur in the Legislature, with up to 105 different views about what an ideal system should look like. And many of those are not in line with the IEA – especially when it comes to money.
Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at [email protected].