TWIN FALLS — After cutting education funding steeply during the recession, Idaho lawmakers have increased it by about 15 percent over the past two years.
However, the pay increases haven't been enough to fix the teacher shortage, and operational funding — basically, how much money each district gets per class — is still short of where it needs to be, says the co-president of Twin Falls' teacher's union.
The "career ladder," which passed in 2015, raises teachers' pay over a five-year period, and lawmakers hoped it would make it easier to find teachers and to get them to stay in Idaho rather than seeking higher-paying jobs elsewhere. But Twin Falls and other school districts throughout the state are still having trouble filling jobs, said Peggy Hoy, who teaches math at Vera C. O'Leary Middle School.
"We're still struggling to get teachers in the state," she said.
While raising the starting pay has helped, Hoy said, teachers who have been there for a while haven't seen their wages go up at the same rate or keep up with inflation.
"I think that the intent was to try to get more money in the teachers' hands, but at the same time, the biggest flaw I see is it ignores the veteran teachers, and that's bad," she said.
Education funding was one of the issues that Democratic legislative candidates in the Magic Valley and throughout the state emphasized frequently in their campaigning this year, saying the state isn't spending enough on education. The Republican candidates in the Magic Valley generally defended the Legislature's actions over the past couple of years while saying they favored continuing to invest more and to fund the "career ladder."
At the end of the day, the political composition of the Magic Valley delegation stayed the same: District 26, which includes the Wood River Valley, will continue to be represented by two Democrats and a Republican, while the rest of the Magic Valley's lawmakers are all Republicans.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra has proposed a 6.6 percent, or almost $105 million, increase in education spending for 2017, including continuing to fund the career ladder and raising operational funding to $26,467 per classroom. It remains to be seen how or whether Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's budget proposal, which lawmakers will start to work with in January, will differ from Ybarra's.
Otter said at the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho conference last week that improving education in Idaho would remain his top focus in 2017. Next year, he said, will be the toughest when it comes to implementing the career ladder because the $58 million increase is the highest of the five years.
“I’m really proud of the fact that we were able to come together and fashion a $350 million-dollar, five-year plan, and now we’re in the third year of that and it’s working,” Otter said, according to The Spokesman-Review. “It’s working because we’ve got 3.8 percent unemployment.”
Otter also said community colleges and work force training would be a major focus, to make sure people are prepared for the jobs employers are struggling to fill.
Hoy has concerns about programs that have made it easier to get a teaching degree without taking some courses such as child psychology. Hoy believes that while the teacher shortage needs to be addressed, it should be addressed without lowering standards.
"There's a lot more to being a teacher than making lesson plans," she said.
In 2016, lawmakers returned operational funding to where it was in 2009, at $25,696 per classroom. Hoy said this isn't enough for today's needs and this has consequences; things like technology, new textbooks and preparing for tests cost money. If it were enough, she said, so many school districts wouldn't still be asking voters for supplemental levies.
"That's seven years behind the times," she said.
Hoy said she has a good relationship with Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, meeting with him sometimes to talk about education-related issues. Clow is on the House Education Committee and has taken an active interest in working on education issues. He also worked as a substitute teacher last year to learn more about what happens in the schools.
In general, what Hoy would like to see more of from lawmakers is support — and interest in visiting classrooms, attending school board meetings and learning more about what schools need.
"Visit the schools," she said. "Visit the classrooms."