Learning from Troy: No blank check to fund schools
Post-Register (Idaho Falls)
The Troy School District narrowly averted disaster Tuesday (Aug. 25). Patrons approved a one-year $995,000 infusion of cash that will allow the district to avoid cuts accounting for one-third of its budget: for this year at least.
Troy, a small northern Idaho district with declining enrollment and property owners increasingly unwilling to backfill state budget shortfalls, should serve as a cautionary tale.
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Troy is likely the first of many small, rural districts that will be forced to stare down the worst-case scenario if policymakers don’t change a system that is anything but “thorough,” “uniform” or “free.”
Idaho is not complying with the education mandate embedded in its state constitution. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has admitted as much.
Here are three reasons why that’s not happening:
• The Risch Shift of 2006 left school funding overly reliant upon sales tax collections that ebb and flow with the economy.
• An archaic school funding formula, in which state money is determined by the number of butts in seats, punishes rural districts such as Troy.
• Legislative priorities. In a letter to State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, Troy teacher Renae Barfus pointed out that policymakers judge teacher performance but avoid finding out if approximately $2 billion in sales tax exemptions are working.
“It is hard for me to fathom how the state is trying to micromanage teacher salaries yet there is no system in place to evaluate the benefit of the 136 tax breaks that are $1 billion more than the entire K-12 budget,” she wrote.
Responding to Barfus, Ybarra wrote: “… I will turn over every leaf, turn over every rock, shake every tree, dig down in the couch cushions for every dime that we can get for educators.”
Let’s hope she means it. The Legislature, not Ybarra, decides policy and sets the budget. But Ybarra was handed a bully pulpit by Idaho’s voters and she ought to begin using it. Advocate for a reversal of the Risch shift; encourage an update to the funding formula; lobby for an examination of sales tax exemptions.
Words, such as those written by Ybarra in her letter to Barfus, don’t mean much to parents whose school district can’t afford the same quality education received by children living in Boise, Sun Valley or Idaho Falls and guaranteed by the state constitution.
Lawmakers can address the policy decisions hamstringing public schools and reinstate funding stability. Or they can be content with task force recommendations that dance around the heart of the problem.
Let’s hope they learn from the near miss in Troy and do what is necessary to ensure that not a single child, no matter where she lives, gets left behind.
Problems, politics and potential of U of I enrollment
Moscow-Pullman Daily News
We’ve been critical of the vague nature of President Chuck Staben’s plans to kick-start enrollment growth at the University of Idaho.
After a year and a half on the job, Staben seems to have a better grasp of the problems, the politics and the possibilities.
The state’s overall problem with college education is that Idahoans don’t go. At least, far fewer of them do than the state’s leaders think is optimal to provide potential employers with a suitably educated workforce. That lack of well-paying jobs is keeping the median state income down. And that’s making the cost of college — even colleges that are relative bargains — seem too expensive to many Idaho families.
Staben has worked with other college leaders and the state Board of Education to clarify the scholarship help good high school students can expect from the state and to presumptively admit those good students to an Idaho college. The state encourages those students to pick the right school for them.
As for politics, Staben seems to have a much better grasp on what higher education can expect from the state Legislature — small increases in funding each year but not much else for now.
The possibilities he sees involve some of the strong programs at the U of I.
USA Today ranks U of I’s College of Natural Resources 11th in the country, and tops in value along with the University of Georgia and University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Heady company for a public research university whose enrollment more closely resembles the universities of New Hampshire, Wyoming, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, North Dakota State and South Dakota State universities.
Earlier this summer, Jim Alves-Foss, director of the U of I’s Center for Secure and Dependable Systems, working with post-doctoral fellow Jia Song, came in second in the semifinals of a competition to increase U.S. cybersecurity. Sponsored by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the finals pit Alves-Foss and Song against teams from UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, Carnegie Mellon University and Raytheon Co. competing for a $1 million prize.
We want to see Staben build a reputation for the U of I on those successes and others like them.