COVID-19, Economy, Politics Lead to Roller Coaster Ride for K-12 Resources
The COVID-19 pandemic has created havoc with public school budgets around the country, and Idaho has been no exception. Shortly after the crisis hit, Gov. Brad Little announced a one percent holdback to be applied to the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, then followed up with a five percent holdback, or nearly $100 million for the 2020-21 school year. These cuts came at a time when Idaho schools were working feverishly to create safe school environments for students and educators as well as bolster their online instruction capabilities—all of which dictate more personnel and resources for effective implementation.
The federal government provided some relief from the CARES act and other stimulus money, particularly for technology needs. At the local level, despite school districts holding emergency reserves of approximately $300 million statewide, getting them to tap into them proved to be difficult. As IEA President Layne McInelly noted, “if a global pandemic doesn’t qualify as an emergency, then what does?”
Gov. Little recently announced that $99 million in additional federal CARES funding is being allocated to school districts, essentially backfilling the state funding lost through the holdback. The additional funds are subject to bargaining at the local level and can be used to fill a variety of holes, including student services, technology, and personnel. “Since roughly half of the funds but lost in the governor’s holdback were earmarked for educator compensation and benefits, the replacement funds should be directed to that purpose to the greatest extent possible,” says McInelly.
Roughly coinciding with the announcement that pass-through funds from the federal government would be made available to Idaho school districts came encouraging news on state revenues. Idaho reported a revenue surplus of $37 million for July and August—the first two months of the fiscal year. If that trend continues, Idaho would be looking at about a $500 million surplus for 2020-21. So, at least in Idaho, the economy has bounced back from the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis in solid shape.
The state has not utilized any of the revenue surpluses for the current school year as yet and may decline to do so for the remainder of the school year. The budgeting process is already underway for the 2021-22 school year, with Supt. Sherri Ybarra unveiling her proposed budget recently. She proposes a 1.5% overall increase, which would leave large gaps in student services, according to McInelly. Governor Little will reveal his proposed budget closer to the start of the 2021 legislative session.
The Career Ladder and the Advanced Educator Pay rung are major issues for professional educators. Both were frozen as part of the holdback. Ybarra does call for an unfreezing in her budget proposal, but that rings hollow for many veteran educators. “Many Idaho educators have been working for a decade or more without a substantive raise, and now they have been asked to work in hazardous conditions with inconsistent safety protocols,” says McInelly. “Combine years of underpaying educators with potential health risks and Idaho’s woeful teacher retention rates could get worse before they get better.”
The centerpiece to any discussion on education funding in Idaho is the unsurprising news that the state was ranked 51st out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in per-student funding—again. In the highly regarded annual report issued by the National Education Association, Idaho checked in at $6,747 per student for the 2018-19 school year. This was an increase of eight dollars per student over the previous year when Idaho also ranked last.
Shortfalls in state funding consistently lead to an overreliance on local levies and bonds. In the 2019-20 school year, 92 of Idaho’s 115 districts relied on local levies to supplement state funding, to the tune of more than $214 million. Other communities are unable to pass supplemental levies, creating drastic inequity from district to district. Facilities bonds are even harder to pass because they require a two-thirds supermajority.
It is worth reinforcing that the state government has a constitutional obligation to provide a “general, uniform, and thorough system of public, free schools.” That obligation needs to represent more than just words on a page. “If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic exposed just how deep inequities in education funding is in Idaho,” McInelly says. “Lawmakers must take action in January and dramatically increase investments in education in order to bridge the opportunity gaps our students face”