It is time for lawmakers to address funding formula

Twenty years ago, the world wide web was an infant, Operation Desert Storm had just ended and The Grateful Dead played their last concert. It was also the last time the Idaho Legislature addressed the education funding formula, which drives a $1.6 billion annual budget and determines the education of Idaho’s children.

Lindsay Russell Dexter
Lindsay Russell Dexter

The Idaho Legislature passed House Concurrent Resolution 33 during the 2016 legislative session. The purpose of the resolution is to create a legislative committee to study the public school funding formula and make recommendations for improvement. Too often, such committees have taken several years to make concrete recommendations. While other interim committees, task forces and bureaucratic groups may have had the luxury to take several years to make recommendations, the interim funding formula committee does not. Interestingly, the governor’s task force on education used one of its 20 recommendations to suggest the state move away from Average Daily Attendance (ADA). But that was over three years ago, and no formula reform has happened.

According to the Education Commission of the States, only seven states still use ADA in their funding formula — a significant statistic because it shows how for behind Idaho is in relation to the rest of the nation. Had the Idaho Legislature made the formula a priority at some point over the past two decades, perhaps Idaho wouldn’t continue to find itself in the lower half of national rankings. Acknowledging the funding formula needs a total revamp, and that ADA needs to be abolished, should be the foundation for all work moving forward.

Additionally, according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, Idaho’s fourth-grade math scores were the worst since 2003; eighth-grade math scores were the lowest since 2007. Using ADA as the basis for the formula is an archaic use of state money and, more important, fails to provide students with the resources they deserve to lead prosperous lives after graduation.

Coupled with low national rankings and deteriorating state scores, the Legislature’s unwillingness to address the funding formula in more than 20 years has kept Idaho’s students from taking advantage of incredible innovative school policies: Educational Savings Accounts (ESA), for instance. ESAs allow parents to tailor their child’s education to their unique learning styles and needs.

The Legislature would need to ensure the funding formula allows money to follow the child. Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi have passed Educational Savings Accounts. To the Idaho Legislature’s credit, lawmakers have begun addressing potential reforms, which provide that the money be tied to the individual child though emphasis on mastery-based education. But offering lip service to these types of reforms won’t be enough. State legislators need to recognize that it’s essential to consider Idaho’s funding formula when passing education reform. More important, they need to recognize the formula is fluid enough to allow for future innovation.

Further, Idaho’s procrastination in reforming the formula has left students with few to no opportunities, except to take classes in brick-and-mortar schools. There is absolutely no doubt students are learning differently than they were 20 years ago. For example, technology in the classroom is so crucial and has become a fundamental need for students to be prosperous. Students need technology to develop skills they will need to be successful and competitive in the workforce, yet Idaho continues to buck the trend and create barriers to technological advances. The interim committee needs to ensure technological funding for each student is a priority.

Revamping Idaho’s education funding formula won’t be easy. The interim committee is tasked with reforming a formula that appropriates the largest budget in the state. When the 2017 session starts, the committee, at the very least, should provide a foundation for any recommendations moving forward. The initial foundation should be grounded in removing the antiquated ADA, emphasizing technology and providing enough fluidity within the formula that future innovation isn’t immediately stifled.

Written by Lindsay Russell Dexter, the senior policy director for the Idaho Freedom Foundation.