Public education came through the 2023 legislative session much better than anyone had expected. It was not a banner year, but the prospects for Idaho’s public schools appeared dim at the outset of the session because a number of new anti-education legislators were elected last year. Fortunately, because of their inexperience or overzealousness, they were not able to disable our public school system. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they will redouble their efforts in the 2024 session.
A bright spot is the $378.6 million increase in funding for public schools, with $145 million earmarked for increased teacher salaries. That allows for a pay increase of $6,359 per teacher and a minimum statewide starting salary of $47,477. The additional compensation will stem the flow of teachers to other states.
The substantial increase is due in large part to the hard work of Reclaim Idaho, which had qualified an initiative for last November’s general election ballot that would have raised school funding by $323.5 million. In order to nip the initiative in the bud, the Governor called a special legislative session before the election to provide a somewhat larger school funding increase. The session produced a bill raising school funds by $330 million. It provided for repeal of Reclaim’s initiative, which was expected to receive voter approval. The Governor certainly gets a great deal of credit for following up on Reclaim’s groundwork and getting the Legislature to appropriate the $378.6 million.
Going into the legislative session, it was almost a foregone conclusion that legislators would force taxpayers to start paying parents to send their kids to private and religious schools. Outside interests had targeted good legislators who thought taxpayers should only fund public schools, which are run by, and accountable to, the people. The Idaho Freedom Foundation and a fellow traveler called the Mountain States Policy Center worked hard on a variety of so-called “school choice” bills. Surprisingly, they failed in their effort to divert public money away from public education.
After examining how these schemes have played out elsewhere, rural legislators figured that school choice would devastate rural school districts while subsidizing people who already send their kids to private or religious schools in our cities. Also, there would be virtually no accountability for how the hand-outs of taxpayer money were spent. Make no mistake though, the school choice people will be back in force next session.
The Legislature passed a bill that took a tiny step toward meeting its court-ordered mandate to pay the lion’s share of the cost of constructing and maintaining public school buildings. In 2005, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that the Idaho Constitution placed this responsibility directly on the Legislature, not property owners. House Bill 292 will provide $100 million to school districts to pay off bonds and levies. When you consider that the cost of repairing existing school buildings is about $1 billion and that over $1 billion in bonds and levies were on the ballot this March (most bonds failed), it is clear the Legislature has just scratched the surface of fulfilling its constitutional duty.
HB 292 also eliminated the March bond election date, which has been the most important time for seeking voter approval of bonding measures. Let’s not forget that these measures are only required because the Legislature has refused to honor its constitutional mandate to pay for construction and maintenance of school buildings. The bill provides a dab of property tax relief, but not enough for anyone to really notice. But still, the bill provides a puny start for state funding for school building construction and maintenance, which would provide significant property tax relief. Idahoans must demand more meaningful action next session.
Reclaim Idaho volunteers laid the groundwork for public education successes this year. The Governor stood up for the State’s education system, with effective support from the chairs of the Legislature’s education committees — Dave Lent in the Senate and Julie Yamamoto in the House. Idahoans should thank them all for standing up for our kids.