When I was running for office in 2018, I frequently talked about improving education at all levels in Idaho. People all over Benewah and Latah counties consistently told me that they wanted to improve K-12 education and asked that the state pay a larger and fair share for education, especially for facilities. Since I have been in office, I have tried to stay part of the education conversation and paid special attention to education efforts. I was pleased that Gov. Little set up the “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” K-12 education task force this summer and I was especially excited about the recommendations they recently submitted.
All-day kindergarten is one of the fundamental building blocks Idaho students need to ensure educational success. It’s amazing that many school districts in my district, like Genesee, use precious local levy dollars to fund all-day kindergarten. I applaud those districts who can afford it but it is really not fair (or “uniform” in the language of the Idaho constitution) if we don’t offer kindergarten in every district. We cannot have winning and losing students determined by which counties are able to afford a levy. I will support the state stepping up to the plate and funding all-day kindergarten statewide.
Retaining veteran educators by “building out the career ladder” was another key recommendation. We left veteran teachers out when we implemented that career ladder in the last few years. Retention has been poor and we have many schools who struggle to find qualified teachers. Every Idaho student knows that it’s the quality of our teachers that is the single most determinative factor in their success. A great teacher can make all the difference in education. Educationally appropriate facilities and on-line education are nice, but our most important educational investment is in our teaching staff.
School facilities is the one topic I wish the task force would have acted on. We have a dysfunctional facilities funding mechanism in the state. Requiring almost 100 percent of funding from local property taxes with a 2/3 vote requirement might have worked 50 years ago but its not functional now. Rural Idaho has a huge amount of old buildings that are at and beyond the end of their life. And those communities often do not have the property tax base or the clear community willingness to fund with property taxes. High-growth areas like Ada and Kootenai counties face a continuous need for new facilities and a bond failure puts them in a crisis with significant school overcrowding. The legislature has a responsibility to find a solution to funding school facilities in today’s economy and today’s school children. We need a new system that works well for public schools, both traditional and charter schools. Idaho needs a solution that doesn’t drive vulnerable local property owner’s out of their homes to keep schools open. I don’t know the answer but we need to make this conversation a priority.
Many thanks to Gov. Little and the members of the “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” task force. I will do my best to help implement their recommendations in the coming years.
Written by Sen. David Nelson, a Democrat from Moscow.