As a professional educator who spent 13 years teaching in a high-poverty elementary school, I have seen first-hand the important role public education can play in creating opportunities for our children. I have also seen how difficult it can be for educators and schools to meet this pressing need due to a lack of commitment and resources from the Idaho legislature, which is once again this session long on bluster but short on enacting policies that will benefit most Idahoans.
Our students, parents, and families deserve more than the half-hearted wave of acknowledgment to the value of public education they are getting once again from our state legislature. We have both a constitutional and moral obligation to provide the resources that create access and opportunity for all students, regardless of where they live, their socio-economic status, or any other circumstance.
Idaho is 51st among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in per-student funding, which is embarrassing enough in its own right. Now add the fact that our state is sitting on a budget surplus of roughly $600 million and is also unable to distribute most of the federal funds designed to help public schools. Here is a quick look at those two missteps.
$600 Million Budget Surplus
- The surplus is a golden opportunity to make a generational investment in our public schools.
- Instead, the legislature is talking about schemes to divert those funds to private schools or create yet another tax break for the wealthy that pushes much of the funding responsibility back on local taxpayers in the form of out-of-control levies and bonds.
Federal Emergency Funds
- Just 40.7 percent of the $106 million Education Stabilization Fund money and only 14.6 percent of the nearly $48 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) money available to Idaho public schools have actually been allocated by the state to local school districts.
- Funds that have been allocated to districts are not always making their way to the intended recipients—students and educators.
- The State Department of Education is failing to distribute funds to districts in a timely manner, while the Governor and the legislature point fingers and engage in a power struggle. These delays also jeopardize Idaho’s ability to access the next round of emergency funds from the federal government. The losers in this unfortunate and avoidable situation are students, educators, and public schools.
Parents know better than anyone the struggle to raise children in today’s world. Our public schools serve as a critical support system in those efforts. They rely on their local school for academic instruction, mental health support, baseline health care, extracurricular activities, and in far too many cases, food. At a minimum, we owe these parents a good faith attempt at helping them prepare their kids for success in school and beyond.
So how would our schools put additional resources to work on behalf of students, parents, and educators? It’s a lengthy checklist of needs, many of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But here a few that rise to the top.
- We are significantly behind our neighboring states in both per-student funding and average teacher salary as we try to overcome teacher retention rates well below the national average.
- We desperately need more counselors, psychologists, and nurses, yet most of our schools were severely lacking in those areas even before the public health crisis.
- Support personnel like paraeducators and transportation, nutrition, and custodial staff are grossly underpaid and underappreciated. These people are an integral part of the education team that helps our students learn and grow.
- The pandemic has underscored the technology divide and how outdated and insufficient many of our facilities are.
We know that Idahoans overwhelmingly believe their teachers are qualified, dedicated, and extremely professional. They are also supportive of their local public schools and of public education in general. Which makes it even more puzzling that some legislators seem to have made it their mission to undermine the public schools for which they are responsible.
There is a clear line of demarcation and a moral imperative here for legislators. Do you support our students and public schools? Or are you on the side of vouchers and tax cuts that only benefit a small percentage of Idahoans? Idaho’s students and parents await your answer.