Guest Opinions

Education task force in Idaho is just political cover for more spending

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.

The push for more education spending came at lightning speed – less than one week after Gov. Brad Little announced his K-12 public education task force.

Idaho Education Association President Kari Overall and the executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, Rob Winslow, both task force members, published an opinion piece that suggested higher pay is needed for veteran teachers.

No surprise. But let’s look at the education salary data a little more carefully, because Overall and Winslow didn’t cite sources.

To begin, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, for 2017-18, Idaho ranks 41st, not 44th (as cited by Overall and Winslow), in average teacher salary. More importantly, the national center compares salaries for veteran teachers who have more than 20 years of experience. In this category, Idaho ranks 22nd out of the 36 reporting states (for the last year data was available). Again, clearly not the bottom.

Finally, Overall and Winslow claim that Idaho’s average teacher salary has declined 6.4 percent since 2009, adjusting for inflation. There are two problems with this statistic. The first problem: We don’t know if the average experience level is the same for the 2009 average teacher salary vs. the current year.

The second problem with Overall and Winslow’s argument: This duo cherry-picked the year 2009, which is very specific. After all, we have the center’s salary data for Idaho teachers going back to the 1969-70 academic year, adjusted for inflation.

Why 2009? Because that was the peak year for teachers’ salaries. According to the center, the average salary, on an inflation-adjusted basis, for Idaho teachers was $45,257 in 1969-70, $43,503 in 1979-80, $46,628 in 1989-90, and $52,986 in 2009-10, as compared to $49,225 in 2017-18.

It is clear that they cherry-picked the high-water mark for teacher salaries. Average teacher salaries are actually higher than they have been in many previous years.

There are a couple of other things to mention. Idaho’s per-capita income was much closer to the national average in the 1970s, before the decline of logging. Therefore, you would have expected the teacher salaries to be higher in the 1970s, relative to other states. Finally, salary data excludes the teachers’ benefits package, which has become increasingly valuable as health-care costs have soared – with these increases largely picked up by the taxpayers.

Even if the teacher salary picture is not as dire as the teachers unions proclaim, we can all agree that good teachers should be fairly compensated and that more money should go to effective teachers. Gov. Butch Otter’s education task force report that came out in 2013 recommended more spending.

What has happened to the additional money appropriated by the Legislature, several hundred million more per year? From 2013 to 2018, while school enrollments have grown 6.7 percent, the number of classroom teachers increased 8.6 percent, but administrators increased 12.3 percent.

Since Otter’s task force report came out, more than $400 million additional dollars per year have been spent for K-12 education (comparing 2013 to 2018 total expenditures of all funds). Before simply adding more money to the system, as Overall and Winslow suggest, a detailed review of what was spent over the past five years and what has been achieved is in order.

Cherry-picking statistics to grope for more money is no foundation for improving outcomes in Idaho’s schools.

Fred Birnbaum is vice president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation and Idaho Freedom Action.

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