Policymakers eager to continue Idaho’s decades of chronically underfunding public education have long been enabled by the Byzantine nature of the state’s education budget.
But a group of education stakeholders, including three Idaho Education Association representatives, took initial steps over the summer to recast Idaho’s public school funding formula. Convened by Debbie Critchfield, Idaho’s state superintendent, the group’s work is the first earnest effort to reform state spending on public education in decades.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” said Chris Parri, IEA’s political director and one of IEA’s three representatives at the table for this summer’s discussions. “This is a gigantic task that involves more than half of the state government’s entire budget and more than a few very high political hurdles. The summer’s discussions put IEA members’ expertise and interests at the center of the process.”
Parri, Stephanie Myers, an IEA region director and former president of the Boise Education Association, and Matt Compton, IEA associate executive director, represent the union the funding formula task force. They lauded the collaborative nature of the summer meetings and Critchfield’s work to bring education stakeholders to the table.
“So far, the work of this committee has been an extraordinary example of bringing people together and incorporating a wide variety of perspectives into this important work,” Compton said. In addition to IEA’s representatives, committee members include Critchfield, Rep. Wendy Horman (R-Idaho Falls) and Sen. Lori Den Hartog (R-Meridian) as co-chairs, representatives from the Idaho School Boards Association, school district superintendents and business managers, charter school advocates and other key lawmakers.
RETHINKING FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER
Recently likened by one journalist to a “Frankenstein’s monster” built over the decades “piece by piece and mandate by mandate,” Idaho’s $2.7 billion education budget is currently legislated through seven separate bills each year.
Critchfield broke with this standard this summer by consolidating her proposed budget for the 2024-25 school year into just three bills. It reorganizes the schools budget into three general categories:
- Uniformity — perennial funding items needed by all districts such as salaries, benefits and transportation
- Thoroughness — programmatic line items like literacy and advanced opportunities
- Discretionary — flexible funding for districts and charter schools; per pupil funding weighted to help disadvantaged districts make ends meet
LIVING UP TO THE CONSTITUTION
Critchfield presented her proposal to the funding formula task force in advance of formally submitting it to Gov. Brad Little on Sept. 1. They endorsed the concept as a workable path forward for rethinking and modernizing the overall budget. IEA’s Parri says the restructuring gives policymakers a good foundation for ultimately living up to the Idaho Constitution’s mandate to the Idaho Legislature “to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of free, common schools.”
“This ongoing discussion around the funding formula will be essential to Idaho living up to its constitutional mandate,” Parri said. “As we know, with so much reliance on local levies and bonds to fund public education, we are not meeting that ideal. We are bringing those kinds of values to this conversation on IEA members’ behalf.”
Critchfield’s budget, which calls for a 4% increase in overall education funding for the coming school year including $50 million for educators’ career ladder pay scale, also has a more immediate impact on the politics of education at the Statehouse, Parri said. Historically, the legislative splintering of the education budget has left it vulnerable to “hostage taking” by lawmakers willing to withhold support of public schools to gain political leverage on policy issues that may or may not be related to education. Critchfield’s proposal reduces that risk, according to Chris Parri, IEA’s political director.
“With this consolidation, holding up the public schools budget becomes a higher stakes game,” Parri said.
PLENTY OF QUESTIONS LEFT
According to Parri, the task force still has a lot of difficult policy questions to iron out before significant reform of the funding formula can be achieved, including sorting out the ongoing debate about funding school districts based upon their daily attendance or their overall enrollment.
“Creating a more predictable funding stream for districts so they can plan more thoughtfully should be a key part of this effort,” said Parri. “We know that using an enrollment-based funding formula will help with that.”
Additionally, Compton said, the state desperately needs to a proper adequacy study to determine exactly how much it truly would cost to deliver a quality education to an Idaho student.
“Until we have that, we are missing a huge variable in these conversations,” he said.