Reader's View: Idaho’s level of education spending is telling

October 24, 2013 

Aristotle, the great champion of the citizenry’s views, observed that if you really want to understand what a state values, observe how it spends its money. In an age in which politicians of every stripe and color declare, or at least feign, commitment to the “future of our children,” the universal yardstick for measuring the authenticity of their words can be measured in their support for education.

Idaho, which prides itself as a “family values” state, ranks number 50 among states and the District of Columbia in per-pupil spending, according to a report issued by the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2010-2011, Idaho spent $6,824 per student. Idaho’s per pupil spending was 35.4 percent lower than the national average of $10,560. Only Utah, another self-described “family values” state, ranked lower, spending $6,212 per pupil.

These expenditures betray the political and cultural portrayals and aims of the people of Idaho and Utah. Indeed, what they really reflect are the core values of the legislators whom the citizenry elects. When education expenditures occupy the bottom rung on the ladder of values, advocates of family values should ask themselves if they are getting the government they deserve.

Last week, Idaho Voices for Children honored the iconic four-term governor of Idaho, Cecil D. Andrus, for his leadership in education, including the establishment of public kindergarten in Idaho and increased public school funding. In words that cut through the fog and smoke that mask the gulf between politicians’ rhetoric and deeds, when it comes to education, Gov. Andrus declared that it is time for Idahoans “to put our money where our mouth is,” if education is truly a top priority.

Idahoans who truly value the future of their children can but cringe at the level of state support for education. A non-partisan goal if ever there was one, education as fulfillment of human aspirations, not to mention its utility as a stepping stone to a better life, should be enshrined on a pedestal, preserved and protected by Republicans and Democrats. Yet, Idaho’s per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, has fallen nearly 16 percent since 2007-2008. To place the neglect of education in sharp relief, Idaho spends $5,000 less per classroom than it did five years ago. Only four states have imposed harsher cuts in education funding since the recession unfolded across the nation.

The implications of inadequate support for education — for Idaho’s children and the future of the state itself — are grim. It is no secret that various businesses that have eyed relocation to the Gem State have taken their jobs and money elsewhere because of their perception that Idaho’s workforce is under-trained and under-educated. The loss of jobs, with good wages and benefits, represents a stark challenge to the Idaho Legislature to reverse its recent trend of neglect.

Governor Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education has rolled out an impressive package of recommendations. The plan to restore $82.5 million in school operation funds and to boost teacher salaries by $250 million represents a solid start. The installation of wireless and broadband technologies at all schools across the state is a “must.”

An improving state economy and a savings account of $140 million, and perhaps more, according to some economists, provides legislative leaders with a genuine opportunity to restore a measure of support for education, the central pillar of Idaho’s future. Failure to make these improvements will draw down the curtains on the declaration that Idaho is a “family values” state. It is high time for Idaho to demonstrate its commitment to education, the true measure of a state’s core values.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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