There are a few things everybody knows about living in Idaho:
▪ When someone asks, “Where’d you go to school?” they mean high school.
▪ “Open range” doesn’t mean watch out for a stove with the door ajar.
▪ Public schools are underfunded and we need to spend more to fix them.
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In reality, the perverse incentives built into the current public education funding system mean that what school districts get is what public education costs, and there’s no way to know how much is enough. This is unhealthy for schools, taxpayers and kids.
Public school districts receive funding according to a Byzantine formula with three primary factors: the number of students in a district and their types, and the types of personnel. Smaller districts receive more money per pupil than larger ones. Districts with many high school, special education and/or English language learners receive more money than districts with many kindergarteners. Districts with experienced teachers holding postgraduate degrees receive more money than districts employing young teachers with bachelor’s degrees.
According to the Idaho Department of Education, district inputs plus local dollars yielded the following per-pupil spending amounts in these Southwest Idaho school districts in 2013-14:
▪ 10,000 or more students: Boise, $9,014; Meridian (now West Ada), $6,308; Nampa, $6,379.
▪ 1,000-9,999 students: Emmett, $8,125; Kuna, $7,009; Mountain Home, $7,024.
▪ Fewer than 1,000 students: Basin (Idaho City), $9,350; Horseshoe Bend, $10,350; Wilder, $10,347.
District per-pupil spending is a critical performance measure because it’s the only one that comes close to the price of educating a student. It’s true you can’t put a price on some things, but as every parent of a college student knows, an education isn’t one of them. It is telling that the median per-pupil tuitions for Idaho’s private schools in 2014 were $3,550 per year for elementary schools and slightly more than $5,000 per year for high schools.
Unlike a school district, a private school’s price and value must match, or it won’t have any students. If costs get out of control or if services suffer, then a private school will lose students and possibly have to shut down. Private schools that have survived the economic downturn must hold quite a bit of value for their families, especially considering those families pay for school twice: once through their taxes and again through tuition.
It is proper for K-12 education to be publicly funded. However, a publicly funded education shouldn’t have to be publicly delivered. Families qualifying for K-12 education services should be free to choose where to spend their education entitlement dollars, just like those receiving food stamps and Medicare entitlements are free to choose their grocery stores and (to a lesser extent) their doctors. This is already the case at the college level: Pell Grants and GI Bill benefits, which are nothing more than federal tuition vouchers, may be used at public or private universities, including religious institutions.
If the value of a public school was perceived as matching its cost, then not only would most families continue to choose their neighborhood schools, but districts might even attract new students. In communities with few or no private schools, education entrepreneurs would build schools that don’t yet exist — unless market research told them families were going to choose to attend district schools.
Sometimes what everybody knows “ain’t necessarily so.” Choice and competition work everywhere else in the world. Whether it is through vouchers, tax-credit tuition scholarships, education spending accounts or something else, removing perverse public education funding incentives and creating true K-12 school choice can make Idaho K-12 education work, too.
Briana LeClaire is the executive director of the Idaho Federation of Independent Schools, a statewide private-school association.