Let’s restate what should be the obvious: Idaho’s schools are hardly flush with money.
Idaho’s per-pupil spending remains mired at next to the last in the nation, exceeding only Utah.
The state’s K-12 budget is still struggling to make up ground lost during the Great Recession. The 2012-13 general fund budget for K-12 is $1.28 billion, or $11.8 million less than 2007-08.
In an attempt to backfill the budgets, school districts have been forced to seek local property tax levies — provided voters are willing to say yes. In many cases, and much to their credit, voters have stepped up. As former state economist Michael Ferguson points out in a Reader’s View today, supplemental levies totaled $169 million in 2012, up 20 percent from the previous year.
And on Wednesday, even Gov. Butch Otter was forced to fess up. During a speech at the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho’s annual conference, Otter fielded a question from the floor — and from none other than Ferguson. The question: Is Idaho meeting the state’s constitutional requirement to “maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools?”
Said Otter, “I would say that we’re probably not, but we’re doing the best job we can and we’re going to continue to do the best job that we can.”
Nowhere does the Constitution suggest grading on effort. But even at that, doing “the best job that we can” should mean Idaho prioritizes public school funding over cynical gambits that use public money to subsidize the private education system.
One such gambit surfaced during the 2012 legislative session — and could return in 2013. This bill would provide an income tax credit to people and companies who donate to private schools’ scholarship funds.
It is, pure and simple, a money shift. Every dollar donated under this scheme — every dollar handed back to Idahoans in the form of tax credits — is a dollar that wouldn’t be available to fund state programs. And since K-12 is the single largest recipient of state general fund dollars, it stands to reason that K-12 would bear the brunt.
The state’s public schools cannot afford this hit.
Neither can property owners, who would inevitably foot the bill for the Legislature’s “charity.”
That’s where this shell game inevitably leads. Chip away at state support for K-12, and districts will be left little resource but to go back to the voters, and the unpopular property tax.
It’s a question of priorities, and what the Legislature does with budgetary breathing room. State tax collections are continuing their gradual rebound — $874.7 million for the first four months of the budget year, up from $842.3 million the previous year.
Does Idaho use that money to continue to build back the K-12 budget? Or does it use tax policy to foster the privatization of Idaho education?
Then there is the matter of the Constitution.
First, there is the constitutional mandate to provide “general, uniform and thorough” public schools. Remember? This is the mandate Otter says the state is “probably not” meeting.
Second, there is an open question of whether this tax credit plan is even constitutional, or a violation of the Constitution’s ban on putting public money into parochial schools.
As Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, told the Associated Press: “You can do workaround to the Constitution all you want, and at some point, you destroy the soul of that document.”
Maybe this “workaround” is constitutional, or maybe not. Two attorney general’s opinions, from 1995 and 1997, reach two differing conclusions. Sounds like this legislation is a test case waiting to happen.
There is no question, though, about what the Constitution has to say about funding public education. So let’s put our dollars there.
“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, email email@example.com.
A constitutional mandate to provide “general, uniform and thorough” public schools.