Ignominious Idaho

Happy vernal equinox! Spring is here and it appears likely that the Idaho State Legislature will adjourn today.

What have those distinguished lawmakers done this term? Well, they are ending the session on one of their most ignominious pieces of legislation, the budget for k-12 school funding. According to Boise Democratic Rep. John Cannon

“We have a budget that doesn’t even come close to matching the enthusiasm our public in Idaho has for education,” Gannon said. He estimates that the budget falls about $170 million short of funding levels from 2008-09, once enrollment increases, inflation and health care costs are added in. He points out that “This budget does not even come close to addressing these issues and solving problem for our schools”

In this budget there is a salary increase of 1% for teachers, matching the raise for other state employees.  Meanwhile, the top state elected officials, including the Governor, will get a 1.5% raise each of the next four years. The original plan was for a 2.5% raise, but the public outrage caused them to trim it back to 1.5% This means the Governor will make $120,785 next year. Spending on education in Idaho ranks 49th in the nation. How do school districts manage to keep their doors open? They are forced to pass supplemental tax levies. This, of course, exacerbates the inequities in schooling. The wealthier districts pass the levies while the poorer districts don’t.

jim_rischtoon3How, you may ask, did Idaho find itself in this financial fix? As the Twin Falls Times News points out, you can blame it on the Angry Gnome:

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch still lauds his 2006 initiative — the biggest political victory during his short stint as Idaho’s governor — that robbed local schools of property taxing power, tied education funding to sales tax and centralized power in Boise. And as Idaho’s starving public schools continue their race to the bottom, we can’t understand why.

“Yes, funding goes up and down based on the economy,” Risch said Friday when asked if binding educational funding to the finicky markets was a good move. “When the people have less money, the government has less money. A lot of people seem to believe that government should be held harmless.”

He admits the system’s defect, even while defending it.

Last week, 11 Magic Valley schools went to the voters begging for money. Some wanted millions to build new facilities and fix leaky roofs. Too many others are just trying to keep the lights on.

The state Legislature in 2006 overwhelmingly endorsed the switch. It made sense to many as frustrated taxpayers clamored for relief. But within 18 months, Wall Street left the nation reeling and the fundamental flaw in Risch’s plan was exposed when people stopped buying. Since the 2008 crash, individual schools have lost millions. Numerous superintendents have told us money that would have been spent on building maintenance is now spent on preserving science classes. Withering buildings, plunging student attainment and growing class sizes are the spawn of the move to sales tax.

Risch contends that schools can still ask voters for supplemental levies, so they haven’t lost any power to make up the losses incurred over the past six years, assuming they can “convince the local people” to support them at the ballot. But too many fail, and, without the taxing power, our schools are failing, plain and simple.

2006 was eight years ago. Surely, current Republican elected officials have seen the error of their ways and decided to rectify the situation?

State Senate and House leadership immediately get defensive when asked if the 2006 switch was a mistake. Lawmakers are more concerned with saving face than righting a wrong. It’s more than a shame, it’s a slight to their duty to draft responsible policy.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said education was his top priority during January’s State of the State address.Yet, neither he nor the Legislature have taken a single meaningful step toward solving the cash issues that are plaguing Idaho, turning off would-be employers in need of an educated workforce and handicapping our children for the rest of their lives. The Legislative session has been a bust; one packed with pandering and political one-upmanship. If this is how Otter treats his “priorities,” we hate to see how less important issues are handled.

Educating the youth is a quintessential government function, one that benefits an entire population and frames history’s narrative for decades to come. They call it the Dark Ages for a reason. Education is maybe our most important infrastructure and it’s failing in Idaho.

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