BOISE — House Democrats unveiled a bill Wednesday to draw teachers to struggling rural school districts by helping to pay their student loans.
"I am excited as a new legislator and as an educator," said Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, a retired teacher who was elected in November to the seat formerly held by Donna Pence. "It's a step forward to building our rural communities."
The bill would pay up to $12,000 — $3,000 a year for four years — of student loans for teachers at schools that are rural, poor, have low student achievement and a teacher shortage.
The Idaho Department of Education would set the criteria and be expected to look at which subject areas schools are struggling in to fill teaching jobs.
Toone said it has grown more difficult to fill teaching jobs in rural areas, especially as the number of young people going into the profession has dropped. And, she said, it is harming students. Eighty percent of Idaho's rural students graduate high school and 51 percent go on to college, compared with the statewide 84 percent graduation and 59 percent go-on rates, a statement from House Democrats said.
"If we don't have a fully certified teacher in a classroom, it is going to affect our students," Toone said.
Toone estimated about half of the rural school districts in the state likely meet the criteria. In her district, she expects the schools in Lincoln County and some in Gooding County likely meet the criteria to participate.
The bill doesn't set an amount for how much it would cost, but were it to pass, said House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, "in a perfect world" he would like to see the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee set aside between $3 million and $5 million for the program.
Every Democrat in the House and Senate has signed on to the bill as a co-sponsor, but no Republicans, a disadvantage in a Legislature with a Republican super-majority and where Democrats' often can't get a hearing for their policy ideas or even get their bills introduced.
Toone, who is on the House Education Committee, said she has been reaching out to Republican lawmakers and she hopes to introduce it.
Most states, including Idaho, have struggled to fill teaching jobs. In Idaho, the problem is generally worse for rural districts than urban ones, and some schools have hired unlicensed teachers just to get enough people.
The "career ladder," a plan to raise teacher pay throughout the state over the course of five years that passed in 2015, was meant to help address this. This year, lawmakers are expected to fund the third year of its implementation at a cost of $62 million, which is up from the original $58 million estimate due to higher than expected enrollment.
However, Erpelding said, the career ladder isn't enough to get the state where it needs to be. It still pays better, he said, to teach in Oregon, Washington or Wyoming than in Idaho, exacerbating retention problems in border areas especially.
"We think that there's a recruitment problem in Idaho and the career ladder is not going to (solve) the recruitment issue," he said.