Who’s looking out for America’s rural schools? That was the title of an article for a national publication I was interviewed for earlier this year. It’s a critical question. As a state representative for a district that includes Lincoln, Camas, Gooding and Blaine counties, it’s a question that drives me every day. I believe my record shows that I am looking out for Idaho’s rural schools. You can do the same on Nov. 7.

The numbers are stacked against rural schools everywhere you look. There are approximately 9 million kids in rural school districts nationwide. That’s more than the total enrollment of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and dozens of other large school districts combined. Nearly 29 percent of America’s school districts are rural, yet they only receive about 17 percent of the overall state education funding. The record is even worse in Idaho. According to the state Department of Education, 75 percent of our districts are considered rural under state law and yet, according to a report by the Rural School and Community Trust, we have the lowest per-pupil spending for rural schools in the country.

As can be expected, the rural working poor get hit the hardest by this state of affairs. Nearly half of rural students in America come from low-income families. That’s certainly true in my district where between 34 and 45 percent of the kids in Lincoln, Camas, Gooding and Blaine counties receive Medicaid/CHIP benefits. In my home county of Gooding, the percentage is 41 percent. What makes this so frustrating is that rural Idahoans are most in need of educational opportunities, and yet they get short-changed at every turn. Despite all of these challenges, around half of rural respondents to a 2017 Idaho Education News poll still said they would recommend their public school district.

The good news is, you can do something about this. The Shoshone School District is proposing a $6 million school bond you can vote on come Nov. 7. This money is desperately needed for school repairs and expansion. If approved, the funds will be used for a new multipurpose building that includes a stage and gymnasium, a new vocational building, alternative school classrooms and repairs to the existing school. As you may know, the city of Shoshone is already under pressure from the Idaho Transportation Department which is threatening to pull out its District Four headquarters and the dozens of jobs that go along with it. With opportunity and prosperity potentially being yanked out from under the town, Shoshone can ill afford to lose out when it comes to its schools. The Minidoka and Filer districts are also proposing measures that total nearly $3 million.

While my colleagues and I in the statehouse continue to push for increased funding for public schools, communities across Idaho have been taking matters into their own hands. From Lake Pond Oreille to Idaho Falls, residents have approved tens of millions of dollars in school bonds and levies in 2017. Those dollars are going toward much-needed school improvements, renovations and construction. I think it’s safe to say that Idahoans at large are getting sick of our low-wage economy – among the lowest in the nation. They realize that a vote for education funding is a vote for opportunity. And they’re right. A 2015 study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that steadily increasing school funding over a student’s time in school 1) made it less likely that poor students would remain poor as adults 2) increased the chances that a student would graduate high school and 3) increased low-income students’ adult earnings by nearly 10 percent. Investing in schools is not just good policy, it’s good business. For everyone.

I have written quite a bit about the plight of small-town and small-county Idaho. I should know, I’ve lived in small-town Idaho all my life. I am also a lifetime rancher and educator. I know the challenges rural communities face first-hand, especially when it comes to their schools. That is why I continue to fight in the statehouse for rural broadband access (Idaho has the slowest speeds in the nation), student loan forgiveness for rural teachers and funding for pre-kindergarten programs. The dollars we invest now in education will pay dividends for our children for generations to come. We all want opportunity and prosperity for our families and improving our schools is the key. While America may be turning its back on rural districts, don’t you do the same. Take matters into your own hands on Nov. 7 and vote for a better future for rural Idaho.

Election information:

Lincoln County: http://lincolncountyid.us/page13.php

Minidoka County: http://www.minidoka.id.us/171/Elections

Twin Falls County: http://www.twinfallscounty.org/clerk/election

Sally Toone, a Democrat from Gooding, represents District 26 in the Idaho House of Representatives.

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