The 2020 legislative session has been an eye-opener. More than 7,600 high paying jobs in technology, construction trades, and health care are unfilled in our state because we lack education and training. I expected a bold plan from Gov. Brad Little to pull us out of a half-billion dollar-a-year income gap and set our great state on a path toward prosperity. The only way to do that is by investing in our public schools. Because Little says he supports education, I was hopeful his State of the State Address would lay out a real plan toward success for Idaho’s children. I support Gov. Little. He is a native Idahoan, graduated from the University of Idaho, served years in the Idaho Legislature, and as lieutenant governor. Little knows our state and his intentions are in the best interests of Idaho.
However, his State of the State speech and agenda for this year’s legislative session failed to meet the challenge.
The governor is proposing a 4.1% increase in the state’s K-12 public school’s budget with an emphasis on improving K-3 literacy. I couldn’t be more in favor of that goal. It is critical that children read at grade level by the third grade. If they don’t, they will probably never catch up and struggle all the way through high school and beyond.
The governor’s overall approach to pulling Idaho out of its crisis falls short. He called the 4.1% increase in K-12 education a “down payment.” He’s right about that. However, the “down payment” is far too small an investment if our schools are to succeed. Our governor convened an education task force last year and asked them to come up with a short list of our most urgent needs. The No. 1 recommendation from the governor’s own task force was for Idaho to fund all-day kindergarten. Idaho is behind most other states in this regard. Our state only funds half-day kindergarten, although some Idaho districts support all day kindergarten using local levy dollars. Children who attend all-day kindergarten have better social skills, literacy, and math skills going into first grade, and are much more likely to read at or above grade level when they finish third grade. If our children and schools are going to succeed, every child in Idaho should have access to free all-day kindergarten in a public school.
According to the National Education Association, Idaho is dead last in the country in per-pupil investments in K-12 public education. That’s right; no state invests less in their public school system than Idaho. To be fair, Idaho is not last in terms of performance. That’s because of the outstanding teachers we have throughout the state who work hard despite the limitations. Without significant additional support for our schools, Idaho will continue down a path to failure. We must invest in our children if we want to keep them here. I see the needs from the boardroom in Sandpoint, where I serve as a school district trustee. We need resources to support our rural schools, activities, and special education. Many of our schools are old and showing their age. Some need to be replaced. The problem is, no Idaho school district receives a dime from lawmakers for new facilities or school renovations. We also need resources to invest in materials and technology. Our class sizes are larger than the national average. Most of all we need to support our teachers. The goal of our district and every district in Idaho is to recruit, train, support, and retain great teachers. We lose great educators every year to districts in other states that pay much more than Idaho does. We do not have a teacher shortage in Idaho. We have a teacher retention shortage!
If Gov. Little wants to make a real down payment on our schools, the first installment should be the $170-$200 million being proposed by Reclaim Idaho through their Invest in Idaho ballot initiative. The petition drive to put this initiative on the November 2020 ballot is currently underway. If successful, every Idaho school district will receive $550-600 per student to support K-3 literacy and whatever else the local school boards determine is necessary. I believe in local control of our public schools. No state bureaucrat or legislator knows the needs of a school district as well as the locally elected board members. Between the governor’s down payment and the proposed Initiative in Idaho we may climb out of the cellar when it comes to investing in our kids.
I believe in jobs, prosperity and security for our communities. A change is needed not just in how we invest in our kids, but how our elected leaders look at investments in the first place.