BOISE – Idaho’s schoolchildren deserve more than just the minimum in their education, state schools Superintendent of Schools Marilyn Howard said Tuesday, as she pushed for new efforts to bring advanced classes to rural students and to encourage kids to go to college.
“It can’t just be students in the big high schools who have the advantage of these challenging courses,” Howard told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in her annual budget pitch. “We’ve got bright kids in every school.”
Howard wants to expand the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, a state-run service that offers online high school courses, to bring Advanced Placement classes to youngsters even in Idaho’s most rural school districts.
But that was just one of an array of proposals she’s pushing that failed to win support in Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s proposed budget for next year, and lawmakers said they likely won’t be able to meet even the governor’s lower school-spending goals.
“We are hampered by the number of dollars available to us to budget,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “We can only do what we can.”
Howard is proposing a $1.05 billion budget for Idaho’s public schools next year, an 8 percent increase and nearly half the state’s general-fund budget. Kempthorne is proposing $999 million, a 3.6 percent increase from the current year.
“I don’t see us going above the governor’s recommendation. In fact, I see us probably being forced to go below the governor’s recommendation, because of the finances that are available to us” for the coming year and the year after, Cameron said.
With Idaho’s two-year sales tax increase to 6 percent scheduled to end this summer, lawmakers are trying to squirrel away all the money they can to make sure the state’s budget can still balance with a 5 percent sales tax.
Said Cameron, “If our economy exceeds our current projections, then we’ll be able to do more next year.”
Howard said Idaho’s school system needs to “move beyond the minimums outlined in our high school graduation requirements and tested for in the ISAT,” the Idaho Standards Achievement Test. The state has put much focus in recent years on the new test and the minimum standards it measures; passing the test is now a high-school graduation requirement.
While Howard said that effort needs to continue – she called for more funding to help tutor kids who can’t pass the test – she also called for addressing the other end of the education spectrum.
“The one concern we’ve had with our standards, our testing, our accreditation and our graduation requirements is that they establish a minimum expectation,” she told lawmakers. “But if we want the creative thinkers and problem solvers we know we need in this increasingly complex world, then we have to start in public school by setting higher expectations and adding more rigorous programming.”
Howard, the only Democrat in statewide elected office in Idaho, said not enough of Idaho’s high school graduates continue their education.
“The Education Commission of the States estimates that only 45 percent of Idaho’s high school graduates went on to postsecondary education within a year of graduation,” she said. “It’s critical to reverse that trend. … If we are not competitive educationally, we will not be competitive economically.”
To address the problem, the second-term superintendent called for expanding the Digital Learning Academy’s offerings, at a cost of $450,000 next year, and launching a new $800,000 effort to pay for college entrance exams for Idaho students to prompt them to consider college, along with other efforts.
“For some students, the cost of the exam is a barrier,” Howard said. “For others, the idea of the exam is a barrier, because their aspirations simply don’t include education beyond the high school level. My intent here is to eliminate those barriers by paying for those exams, and in the process open up new prospects for students who might not otherwise even consider that they might be capable of going to college.”
Lawmakers on the budget panel were unenthusiastic about that proposal.
Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, who is 31, said he remembers taking the college entrance exam himself. “I don’t think that the reason that kids in Idaho are not going to college is because they can’t afford the $30 to take the test,” he told Howard.
Plus, he said he checked on the Internet, and at least one of the main college-entrance exams offers fee waivers for needy students.
Howard urged lawmakers to consider a lower-cost alternative: paying the $11 fee for every high school junior to take the PSAT, a national test that puts students in contention for the National Merit Scholarship program.
“How do we let our students know that they’re college material?” Howard asked. “It’s a kind of make-you-think budget item. … It’s to get it on the radar screen.”
Howard anticipated the budget-minded lawmakers’ main question: What her top priorities are, among the array of needs identified in her budget request. She named three: Adding enough to salary funding to allow an average 1 percent raise for teachers; funding a $12.4 million investment in technology in school districts across the state; and boosting “discretionary” funds handed out to school districts for their day-to-day needs, from textbooks to utilities.
Howard actually wanted enough money for a 3 percent raise for teachers, but Kempthorne recommended just 1 percent, the same amount he recommended for all state employees.
“It’s not going to translate into actual salary improvement for teachers in a meaningful way, but it’s something,” Howard said.
Kempthorne also backed the technology investment and the increase in discretionary funds.
Howard said she’d add two more items to her top-priority list: The expansion of the Digital Learning Academy, and more funding for remediation for kids who have trouble passing the ISAT.
Cameron suggested that if any money is to be put into those areas, it may have to come out of the proposed $12.4 million for technology. Last year, Idaho gave schools just $8.4 million for technology investments, down from the level of earlier years.