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Editorial: Idaho public schools take fresh hits in Legislature

Unbowed by the defeats of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 last November, Idaho lawmakers have renewed their efforts to undermine public school education.

Legislative committees this week voted to: allow school districts to impose contract terms on teachers; fund charter school building costs; and, most insidiously, create a $10 million tuition fund for private schools.

An attorney general opinion quoted by Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, quite accurately characterized the fund as “an artful dodge to allow sort of a shell with respect to support of religious schools.”

And, as if to underscore that intent, two of the witnesses who testified for HB 286 were from Christian academies in Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene. One complained his school was subsidizing other costs by paying teachers less. Isn’t that the story of public education in Idaho?

The “dodge” here is using the credits as an alternative for vouchers, which would not pass constitutional muster. The tax benefits do not go directly to parents, but to individuals or companies that receive tax credits for contributions to organizations that provide scholarships to private schools, religious or not. Credits have already been adopted in 17 states where advocates cloak them as “school choice” measures. Not surprisingly, many of these states, like Idaho, spend the least amount of money per pupil.

Indeed, Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, promotes his bill as a cost-savings measure, as if any more “costs” could or should be squeezed out of an already grossly underfunded school system.

But handing state money – forgone revenues – to an estimated 3,000 students will have little, if any, effect on the cost of educating the 263,000 other K-12 students. No school capital or operating costs will be trimmed, and taking one student out of a classroom will not reduce total salaries, although the remaining students might get more individual attention.

As even its supporters concede, unless the Legislature comes up with more money, the same applies to helping charter schools and their building costs. And the charter schools get an upgrade public schools could envy: a 10 percent boost if the state school budget increases 3 percent. The teachers might want a piece of that.

Instead, a bill that would give school districts the power to impose their best contract on teachers, a la the rejected Proposition 1, has passed the House and moved on to the Senate. Legislators are trying to fund raises for teachers this year, but the target remains below expenditures in 2009.

The money for teachers is overdue, but there is no need to act on the other measures until an education task force created by Gov. Butch Otter can finish its work. Committee support for Nonini’s bill suggests the task force start with a simple statement that Idaho remains dedicated to a quality public education for all students.

The fundamental problem, as Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston said, “is that we have seen a systematic disinvestment in K-12 education.”

Meanwhile, Idaho school district voters approved more than $100 million in levies this week to backfill for missing state dollars. The Legislature needs to stop digging.


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