State Politics

More Idaho kids are graduating, but massive teacher shortage looms

Idaho state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, left, makes her budget pitch to lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
Idaho state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, left, makes her budget pitch to lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Thursday. The Spokesman-Review

Sherri Ybarra, Idaho’s state superintendent of schools, made a strong pitch to state lawmakers Thursday to raise the public school budget by 6.8 percent next year, with the biggest portion of the increase going to the multi-year effort to raise teachers’ salaries.

“Today’s public school budget request reflects the top priority I’ve heard in conversations around the state from our superintendents, our teachers, our trustees, our business leaders, our parents and many, many more,” Ybarra said.

Education stakeholders across the state, she said, have sent a clear message: “No new initiatives or line items, cut the red tape … stay the course, keep the target attainable, trust in our local boards.” If the state keeps the target steady, she said, local education officials tell her, “We will hit it.”

Idaho is currently in the third year of a five-year plan to improve the state’s schools, with the new teacher “career ladder” the priciest piece of the plan as it heads into its fourth year.

“Systematic change often takes a lot of time,” Ybarra said, adding that she often describes it as “trying to put a sweater on an octopus.”

“We are seeing some early results in some key areas,” she said. “For example, we’ve increased the graduation rates. There’s been huge increases in high school students earning college credits while still in high school, as well. Programs such as these save our families thousands in college costs down the road, thanks to your support.”

“But there is still much more work to do,” Ybarra said. Idaho still has “some challenges to face,” she said, from a teacher shortage to addressing bullying and harassment.

Lawmakers on the Legislature’s joint budget committee gave Ybarra high marks for her fourth budget presentation. “I think she did a very professional job, very thorough,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, co-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “She knew her budget, and she knows her staff and when to defer — and those are all good qualities to have.”

Ybarra presented lawmakers with 25 pages of charts and graphs, and spoke in detail about each line item in her $1.8 billion general fund budget request. It’s the single largest piece of Idaho’s state budget, this year accounting for 48.8 percent of state spending. She also highlighted award-winning student artwork; and shared stories about former students telling how much impact their teachers had on their lives and eventual success.

“As a veteran teacher myself,” Ybarra said, “I know the reward of our work is of course the success that you’ll see in the classroom.” Taking stock of where Idaho stands in its five-year plan, she said, “We are on the right track.”

However, she said, “We’re now facing an educator shortage nationally and within our state. The hiring pool of qualified teachers is shallow, and we’re seeing a rise in teachers who are using alternate routes to certification.”

Two recent studies — one from the state Board of Education, and one commissioned by Ybarra’s office and released on Monday — examined the impact of the teacher shortage on Idaho. The results, Ybarra said, showed, “Our teaching force is becoming less experienced. … Teachers with less than four years experience are making up a growing share of Idaho’s teacher workforce, especially in our low-performing, high-poverty schools. We are also seeing some of our most disadvantaged students … served by our least experienced teachers.”

Ybarra said, “I want to be clear that we do value all teachers.” But, she said, it’s a mantra that the most training is needed to serve those most in need. “Solving our educator shortage will take several strategies from both the state and local level,” she said.

That includes working to create a climate and culture where being an educator is valued; working on “different certification paths to the classroom that still ensure quality,” and mentoring for those who are new to the profession.

The most important strategy, she said, “is the one that is before you today, which is the continued investment in the career ladder.”

“What a great presentation,” Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, told Ybarra as she concluded.

Gov. Butch Otter has recommended just a 6 percent increase in state funding for schools next year. The major difference between his proposal and Ybarra’s is Ybarra’s request for a $14 million-plus increase in discretionary funds for school districts, with half of that tabbed to cover increased health insurance costs. Otter recommended no increase in discretionary funds for districts next year, saying he wants to wait until a panel working on a revamp of the state’s school funding formula finishes its work in another year.

Both Keough and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, a key sponsor of the public school budget, said the discretionary funds are key.

“The school districts are really hampered if they don’t have the flexibility that provides,” Keough said. “Our locally elected school boards need that flexibility.”

Horman said, “I think it’s important that we fund health insurance for our teachers, as well as operational expenses that we know our districts and charters will experience.” Horman said she met with her local school superintendents just a day earlier, and health insurance costs were a big concern for them. Funding adequate health insurance for teachers, she said, is “important for recruiting and training teachers. We’ll be definitely considering how we can address that.”

Otter and Ybarra agree on an array of proposals for increases for schools next year, following the five-year plan, including a $10 million boost in classroom technology; increasing college and career advisers, for which Otter’s actually recommending $5 million next year compared to Ybarra’s $2 million request; and $1 million increases in services for students with limited English proficiency and development of Idaho’s new “mastery-based” approach to advancing students from one grade to the next.

Ybarra also asked for additional salary boosts for school administrators and classified staff such as janitors and lunch room workers; Otter didn’t recommend those.

He did, however, recommend a $6.5 million boost to literacy proficiency programs for the youngest students, going beyond Ybarra’s request; and an additional $4 million for professional development training for teachers.

JFAC will begin setting state agency budgets in mid-February. Though budget bills still need passage in the House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law, they rarely change once they’re set by the powerful, 20-member joint committee.