Guest Opinions

Idaho’s mess of a public education system needs fixed

Let’s name reality: Idaho’s public school funding system is in what the professionals like to call a big fat mess.

Part of the problem is inadequate funding. Part is the growing inequality among school districts. And part is whether Idaho’s school districts are making do by shoving some costs onto students — a problem in a state whose constitution requires a free public school education.

In fact, Idaho’s constitution is pretty clear about the duty — that’s a duty, not an option — of the Legislature to maintain a school system that is general, uniform, thorough, public and free. Most of those words have been tested in court over the years, but time passes and things get out of whack.

Overall, public school funding took a hit in 2006 when legislators eliminated the basic property tax used to help maintain and operate school districts. The idea was that the state would replace that loss, but not long afterward Idaho and the nation went into a recession, and eventually public school funding was cut. As this newspaper reported in June, school districts have yet to recover: In 2006-07 dollars, schools are still getting less this year than they spent a decade ago, even with more students to educate.

There’s always a question about how much is enough, and someone always pops up to say that money doesn’t buy a good education. But as former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jerry Evans, a Republican, used to say, money may not buy a good education, but it certainly buys the things that make for a good education: up-to-date textbooks and lab equipment, highly qualified teachers, more days of instruction, and so on.

That 2006 decision and its aftermath led directly to the other two big problems: unequal levels of support from district to district (is that uniform?) and fees students are paying to public schools (is that free?).

It’s hard to blame schools for trying to make ends meet by adding things here and there for students to pay for. Those charges range from the $110 pay-to-play athletic fee in West Ada School District to charges for classes that use consumable materials, to the long and detailed lists of required supplies for elementary classes.

I priced out one of those lists. It came to $37.99 plus tax, although the young couple shopping next to me for their child’s supplies pointed out that I really should add in the cost of a backpack to carry everything. The $37.99 is not much for some people and a lot for others, but it certainly isn’t free.

The day after I shopped, 4th District Judge Richard Greenwood ruled in one family’s case that the fees charged to the children violated the constitutional right to a free public education. We’ll find out in time whether that decision is an isolated case or a harbinger of things to come.

Just as worrisome is the growing inequality among school districts. Back before the 2006 elimination of the M&O property tax, state funds were the great equalizer: property-rich districts (Blaine or Kootenai counties, for example) got less state money and property-poor one (Hagerman or Troy) got more. The result — and this is a vast oversimplification of a highly complex system — was that every classroom in the state, regardless of location, had about the same amount of money behind it.

The 2006 decision didn’t include equalization. As state school support slowed and then dropped, taxpayers in school districts rose to the occasion by approving supplemental levies. Today, taxpayers in 91 of the state’s 115 districts are levying almost $187 million on themselves just to make ends meet.

The Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, which tracks information on public schools, health care, taxes and other topics, has a good analysis of “Idaho Public School Funding — 1980-2013” online at http://idahocfp.org/publications/.

The report concludes that “Idaho didn’t get to its current state of affairs with respect to public school funding overnight. A series of incremental steps ... have brought us to this point. It is probably not realistic to expect a quick fix.”

Still, unless we get started, there won’t be any fix at all, and public school education — the foundation of our democracy — will continue in Idaho to be a function of where the child lives, what the taxpayers are willing to do and how much money families have to pay fees to take part in that “free” education.

Lindy High, of Boise, is a retired Idaho state employee who worked for elected officials of both parties.

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