Legislators need to confront local funding as they consider rewriting the state funding formula

Following the excitement of election week, the dialogue about local education levies largely disappears. But the impacts of failed levies linger in the districts.

Around Idaho, these levies fund a variety of programs such as all-day kindergarten and pre-school programs. They fund much-needed facility repairs and updates. They contribute to teaching positions and updated textbooks. Educators and administrators will be the first to tell you that these levies are no longer supplemental for their districts — but necessary.

These levies are important. It is also no secret that some of Idaho’s less affluent areas struggle to pass levies. On Tuesday, Nampa’s supplemental levy failed by just 11 votes. The two-year levy would have strengthened the ability for the district to pay for teachers, extracurricular programs and classroom updates. Now Nampa must reassess whether any of that is even possible.

The main problem with local funding is that districts that need it most – those that have larger high-need populations, more children in low-income families and have less parental involvement – are often the districts that struggle with passing local levies.

For example, Caldwell and Coeur d’Alene have similar population sizes. But the districts’ taxing abilities have vastly different outcomes. According to Idaho Ed Trends 2017-2018 data, Caldwell’s supplemental levy for maintenance and operations was valued at $2.3 million ($399/student). Coeur d’Alene’s levy was $16.3 million ($1,511/student). Unsurprisingly, Coeur d’Alene outperforms Caldwell in most student outcomes. Also unsurprisingly, Caldwell has vastly different students than Coeur d’Alene in terms of socioeconomic demographics and different educational needs. All of Caldwell’s schools qualify for free and reduced-price lunch due to the level of poverty in the district, and Caldwell has a higher-than-usual population of students with special needs. In comparison, only 36 percent of Coeur d’Alene’s students are considered “low income” (Idaho CNP Lunch Eligibility Reports).

It should be noted that despite drastically different student needs, in 2017-18 the two districts received roughly the same amount of money from Idaho. Caldwell received $5,601/student from the state, while Coeur d’Alene received a similar amount of $5,243/student. Caldwell is also a shining example when it comes to levies, as every levy the district puts forth passes. For Caldwell, even though the community rallies around the levies, the taxable property value is drastically less than that of more affluent areas. If Caldwell were to pass the same tax rate as Coeur d’Alene every levy, it would still generate considerably less money.

As Idahoans, it is our responsibility to correct our beliefs that failing districts don’t deserve increased funds. But it is our legislators’ responsibility to address how this local funding drastically impacts educational outcomes as they confront the state’s education funding strategy.

A school districts ability to provide a quality education to its students should not be anchored to their ability to tax property value.

Everyone benefits from an educated community. Adequately funding education leads increased graduation rates, higher employability and other economic benefits. Countless studies show that properly funding education is, in fact, cheaper than paying for the negative externalities that result from not doing so: higher crime rates, lower health outcomes, etc.

The complexities of local funding in education are not unique to Idaho. Some states entirely revoked districts’ taxing authority and moved to a full-state funding model. Other states revised their funding formulas to account for districts’ ability to pay, with the state providing less resources to districts with higher property value. Each state deals with local funding differently, but Idaho legislators must meaningfully discuss how local funding impacts our schools.

An important step in the right direction is rewriting Idaho’s funding formula for education in the 2020 legislative session. A student-based formula will ensure that students with greater needs are better supported. And any rewrite that doesn’t address the inequity that local funding creates is inadequate.

Legislators need to find a method that ensures adequate and equitable education for all of Idaho’s kids.

Written by Cameron Arnzen, a graduate student at Duke University studying Idaho education politics.

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