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To hear, legislators must do more than 'listen'

Marty Trillhaase
February 7, 2013
Lewiston Tribune

Idaho's House and Senate Education committees need to focus more on Idaho's educational dog and not the charter school tail wagging it.

If you rounded up every child enrolled in a charter school as well as every student who'd like to attend one, you'd still be talking about no more than 10 percent of the kids in the Gem State. Yet the charter school movement swamped last week's "listening" session - in part because students and parents from Boise's Sage International charter school got there so easily. Their school is located about a mile from the Statehouse.

That's one way to drown out Idaho's litany of schoolhouse problems. But if the education panel members are sincere about conducting a second session Monday, they'll make every effort to hear about the following:

Idaho deliberately refuses to pursue early childhood education. What price is the state paying for taking that stance? Idaho is among no more than 10 states that make no investment in pre-kindergarten programs. It closes its eyes to study after study that show early childhood education leads to successful students and productive adults. By one estimate, every dollar spent on early childhood education yields $16 back.

What happens - or what doesn't happen - when students are in class only four days a week? Desperate to cut costs, at least 34 Idaho school districts and five charter schools have resorted to four-day weeks. That's up from 14 school districts and two charters four years ago.

What does it mean to be at the bottom of the nation's educational barrel? Idaho's per-pupil expenditure is ranked second to last. The share of Idaho's personal income devoted to public education has declined more than 20 percent since the new century began. And the percentage of ninth graders who will get to college on schedule is ranked 41st in the nation.

Are Idaho's schools free no longer? How can Idaho meet its constitutional commitment to "free common" education when parents are squeezed to pay fees for everything from sports to field trips, from art supplies to science class equipment and even class "dues"? Former Nampa School Superintendent Russell Joki has filed a lawsuit contending the Legislature has shirked its constitutional duty to "establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools." Is he right?

What is the absolute minimum level of support needed to satisfy Idaho's constitutional mandate for a "general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools"? How far short of achieving that does Idaho fall?

Unable to survive on meager state funding alone, schools have resorted to supplemental property tax levies to make up the difference. Voters have agreed to pay an estimated $171 million - up nearly 23 percent in a year. But it's creating a gap between rich districts, where a small rate generates big returns, and poor districts, where it takes a higher tax to raise a small amount of money.

Is Idaho draining the well of public school financing? Idaho's disinvestment in public education has been fueled by a legislative penchant for cutting taxes. First, lawmakers unhitched schools from a statewide property tax levy, thereby extending a break to corporations and wealthier families. They replaced only part of the money with a sales tax boost, borne by lower-income families, which proved no match for the Great Recession. Next, they cut income taxes on corporations and upper-tier individuals. Now there's talk of eliminating the $141 million in personal property taxes businesses pay on equipment.

Of Idaho's 115 school districts, are any now so financially distressed that they are on the verge of closing their doors? - M.T.

Originally posted at

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