It will take a lot more than higher teachers’ salaries and revised standards to cure the disease that infects Idaho’s public schools.
The state’s educational funding mechanism is broken and must be fixed and fixed now.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s Educational Task Force last week overwhelmingly endorsed a slew of new, federally backed standards. The proposal would boost minimum salaries for new teachers from $31,000 annually to $40,000.
The bolstered salary steps, contained within the six-year, $254 million Common Core program, could prove instrumental in retaining talent.
Teachers are the boots on the educational ground, and Idaho can’t continue to bleed young instructors because of low wages.
But we must again point to the all important number here: $254 million.
The additional cost, though spread across six years, again raises questions about the state’s failed experiment with funding its public schools.
Then-Gov. Jim Risch triumphed in 2006 when he and the Legislature gutted how Idaho’s schools had been traditionally funded.
The law ended the use of property taxes to fund operational and maintenance costs of the state’s 115 public schools. It instead hiked sales tax by 1 percent, which, at the time, closed most of the gap created by the lost property tax revenue.
“No longer will Idahoans fund public schools by turning to the property tax,” Risch proclaimed after signing the bill. “That’s a good thing.”
Conservatives have for years considered property taxes fundamentally unfair because only those who own land pay for services everyone enjoys. A sales tax increase, the argument follows, spreads the funding burden across all consumers.
But in 2008, the economy tanked. People stopped spending. People stopped buying. Sales tax revenues plummeted.
Public schools — funded at $1.3 billion in the 2013-14 fiscal year — remains by far the largest chunk of Idaho’s current $2.8 billion state budget.
Yet education funding is falling behind compared with that of other state agencies, says a recent study by the Boise-based Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy.
Funding for non-educational state agencies grew on average 4.9 percent a year between 2000 and 2012. Educational funding grew by 3.3 percent, the budget analysis concludes.
Idaho’s per-student spending remains among the lowest in the nation. That number, roughly $8,800, has continued to fall, since 2008’s Great Recession.
Research publication Education Week ranked Idaho’s public educational system 48th among the states, based on sub-par educational achievement.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the 2006 experiment, while politically popular, has failed.
Many states fund their schools almost entirely on local property taxes. This model also hasn’t worked. Schools in wealthy towns benefit from a robust tax base while poor communities struggle.
It’s time to rethink how Idaho funds it’s school systems.
Perhaps allowing each district to fund up to one-third of its operational costs through local property taxes could close the growing gap.
The local voters, in this scenario, would have the final say and could either scuttle or approve the local school board’s request for cash.
This hybrid system would keep the majority of the state’s school funding squarely on the backs of everyone.
It also would cede a measure of local control back to the individual communities.
If the voters of one district want more cash for music or literature programs, they could raise it.
A Boise-knows-best approach isn’t working. Idaho’s schools are slowly suffocating. Something has to change.
A true republic must rely, in some regard, on home rule.
And freeing local districts to pursue funding for core programs from the local populace would return power to where it belongs — with the people.