In Sen. Thayn’s recent post, “The Student Empowerment and Accountability Bill,” a new funding methodology is proposed to tie school funding in Idaho to a new measure, student engagement. There are some big issues with this proposal, but the largest one is that it is progressing from a False Cause. I can assure Sen. Thayn, as someone who has been educated completely within Idaho’s borders, that engagement is not an answer, a concern, or even something practicably understood. The problem is, and always has been, that Idaho’s Legislatures would not deign to sully tax dollars on our public school system. Imagine you attend a holiday party, and the host is providing pizza for dinner. They order two large pizzas for 20-30 people. Obviously, these partygoers will go underfed. Now imagine that this pizza is Idaho’s public education costs, and the students are those partygoers who will go home hungry. What Sen. Thayn’s post argues is that the problem isn’t that there isn’t enough to go around, but rather how we make the slices will make all the difference. This is the same old song and dance that begins playing every five to seven years when Idaho’s Republican majority starts getting beaten up on education dollars. The solution is and has always been an increasingly bizarre or arcane mechanism to ‘refresh’ the funding of public education without, you know, funding education. This most recent pizza slice shape ties everything to engagement and, for good measure, tosses out anything remotely resembling a structured approach to educating society as well.
Sen. Thayn may be right that the way the slices are cut is indeed a problem. Surely, creating a single baseline for per-pupil funding doesn’t make financial or economic sense across a state like Idaho. Sen. Thayn represents Emmet which has one-tenth the population of my hometown, Idaho Falls. The baseline cost of running a school in Emmett must, by definition, cost more per student than a comparable school in Idaho Falls because the measure, per pupil, is from a smaller pool. So, yes, a baseline per-pupil funding model with no room for nuance or reality is a problem. However, recall our thought experiment of the peckish partygoers. The slices may be cut terribly or in inconvenient shapes, but none of those problems arise above the larger problem of there not being enough pizza for this group of people. Once additional pizzas are provided, then the various topping choices, slice sizes, and other characteristics are relevant, but until then they are tangential and superfluous at best. What Sen. Thayn doesn’t seem to understand is that absolutely none of the funding models, incentive mechanisms, or test metrics mean anything until there is enough funding to educate Idaho’s students to an acceptable baseline.
Finally, a note on measurement. Tying any kind of funding modality to something that is fundamentally un-measurable is flawed at the least and irresponsible at the worst. Sen. Thayn, argues that teachers can be the judge of a student’s engagement—but I thought the legislature was taking the position that teachers aren’t doing enough and are padding assignments to artificially increase GPAs? Also, student engagement is a nice concept and I’m sure it goes great in an elevator pitch to your busy constituents who just want to know their kids can do math, but it doesn’t actually mean anything. Student engagement is a qualitative measure that would be completely impossible to apply consistently, effectively, and in a way that will capture the depth of the student’s experience. Every teacher, school, and student is different and will be ‘engaged’ in different ways. Growing up, a close friend of mine had to watch his father be deported and go to school THE VERY SAME DAY. He was a tremendous student and always did his best, but, Sen. Thayn, do you think he was engaged on that day? Students have enough to manage without also having to ‘be engaged’ before their school can get new books. Rather than finding new ways to nickel and dime schools, communities, and parents how about you edit your proposal and simply increase the funding levels to a functional level so that schools and students can stop going hungry, metaphorically and literally, and then we will figure out how to manage the finer points of the allocation? Sen. Thayn, please, just order some more pizza for us.