Idaho education groups continue to express concern with proposed school funding formula

Sherri Ybarra speaks to lawmakers about Idaho’s public school funding

Lawmakers gathered for a 'listening session' on a proposal for Idaho's public school funding. Sherri Ybarra spoke during the session.
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Lawmakers gathered for a 'listening session' on a proposal for Idaho's public school funding. Sherri Ybarra spoke during the session.

Originally published by on Feb. 7, 2019

Lawmakers heard from 20 speakers — and heard some recurring themes — during Thursday’s “listening session” on a proposal to rewrite Idaho’s public school funding formula.

It was the first hearing on the draft funding formula bill, released Jan. 31. More than 120 people — including school superintendents and other administrators, trustees, educators, parents and taxpayers — filled the Statehouse’s largest hearing room for the one-hour, 45-minute hearing.

It’s the first step in what will certainly be a long legislative process.

Even the supporters of the rewrite acknowledge that their bill is not a finished product. Alternating between using football and baseball metaphors, House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, urged his colleagues to stay on their toes. His Senate Education Committee counterpart, Idaho Falls Republican Dean Mortimer, said it would probably be two weeks before a bill comes up for an initial hearing.


What’s at issue

Any proposal would repeal Idaho’s 25-year-old attendance-based funding formula in favor of an enrollment-based model where money would follow the students.

Under the new formula, the state would provide a base level of funding ($4,236 per student in the latest proposal) that would follow students. The proposal takes this base funding level and adds in funding weights to support at-risk students, English language learners, gifted and talented students, special education students and kindergarten- through third-grade and ninth- through 12th-grade students. Finally, the proposal calls for additional funding for small and remote schools, added funding for large schools or districts, and incorporating a wealth adjustment based on property values.

Supporters say the overhaul is necessary to address hallmarks of a 21stCentury educational landscape, including online learning, student mobility, dual enrollment, the expansion of classroom technology and the proliferation of charter schools. Skeptics worry that the new formula takes the same amount of funding and divides it up differently, creating winners and losers.

During a briefing with reporters earlier Thursday, Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said legislators have made progress to reduce the number of districts that would lose funding.  Under the latest funding spreadsheet simulations the number of districts that would expect to lose funding would drop from 36 to 17 — provided lawmakers added $90 million to the overall K-12 budget.

The draft bill also outlines a temporary, three-year period where the state would provide funding to ensure districts or charters don’t lose money during a transition. If lawmakers pass a “hold positive” provision, ensuring at least a 2 percent funding increase during the transition, that could cost about $3.2 million a year. If lawmakers simply hold schools “harmless,” heading off funding decreases, the cost could be $1.8 million a year.

Key themes and recurring concerns

The Statehouse’s leading education lobbyists — and local school leaders from Blaine County to Orofino — seemed to gravitate around several pieces of the funding puzzle.

The career ladder. As written, the bill would get rid of the $761 million line item that pays for teacher salaries. That money would flow into the formula. But the bill would also work in the language of the career ladder, including the optional salary schedules created under the 2015 law.

Several education groups opposed this move. They pointed out that the career ladder law was designed to allow schools to draw up their own salary schedule, if they chose to. They said the bill would mandate a statewide salary table, compromising local control.

The wealth adjustment. Speaker after speaker criticized this piece of the plan — which would carve up about 4 percent of the funding pie. The money would move around based on property value; districts with a more lucrative tax base would get fewer state dollars, while poorer districts would get additional state funding.

Several speakers said the formula really has no connection to student demographics. Superintendent Kevin Lancaster talked about the realities in his Bliss School District. Between 80 and 90 percent of his students qualify for free and reduced lunch, so the school provides supplies to students rather than expecting parents to buy them. Yet, under a wealth adjustment based on property values, Bliss would be considered a “wealthy” district.

The shift to enrollment-based funding. This was the initial impetus for the new formula — and a recommendation from former Gov. Butch Otter’s K-12 task force from 2013. Several speakers said they support this idea, even if they had concerns about the draft bill.

Charter school advocates pushed hard for the shift to enrollment-based funding, and seemed to be the most enthusiastic supporters of the draft bill.

“It’s going in a good direction,” said Tom LeClaire, president of the Coalition of Idaho Charter School Families, which represents Idaho’s mobile virtual charter population. “We’re happy to see it.”

The process. Treasure Valley school superintendents have complained that they were cut out of the drafting process — and on Thursday, some of the Statehouse’s most visible education lobbyists picked up that theme.

After having just six days to review a 59-page bill, Karen Echeverria of the Idaho School Boards Association lamented that her group was at a “severe disadvantage.” Idaho Education Association President Kari Overall said bill writers have ditched a collaborative process while pushing “a false sense of urgency.”

For the whole of the hearing, House and Senate education committee members asked no questions. By design, Clow and Mortimer wanted Thursday’s joint meeting to be strictly a listening session.

These lawmakers heard concerns that they will need to consider in the next few weeks, Horman said after the hearing. But after spending three years on a legislative committee that studied the complex funding formula, Horman didn’t leave Thursday’s hearing surprised.

“It’s not really things we haven’t heard before,” she said.

Idaho Education News senior reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report. 

Read for yourself

  • A 59-page draft of a bill to rewrite Idaho’s public school funding formula is available online.
  • Several spreadsheets designed to illustrate the effects of the proposed funding formula are also online. The Feb. 1 spreadsheet is the latest version, but it does not perfectly align to the draft bill.