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Major changes eyed in Idaho public school funding plan

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 23, 2017, 8:40 p.m.

This photo shows the glass dome over the Idaho state Capitol’s Senate chamber. An interim legislative committee Friday in Boise considered major changes to the state’s 23-year-old public school funding formula, including a shift to a student-based model. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)
This photo shows the glass dome over the Idaho state Capitol’s Senate chamber. An interim legislative committee Friday in Boise considered major changes to the state’s 23-year-old public school funding formula, including a shift to a student-based model. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

An interim legislative committee is considering major changes to Idaho’s 23-year-old public school funding formula, including a shift to a student-based model.

During a daylong meeting Friday in Boise, the committee began narrowing proposals for the 2018 legislative session. Topping the list is the shift to student-based funding, which would distribute state dollars according to which entity – a traditional school, charter school or online academy – actually serves a child.

Idaho’s current funding model is based largely on staffing. Districts receive the bulk of their state appropriation according to the size and experience level of their teaching and administrative staff. A smaller portion reflects average daily attendance, which measures how many students are actually in class at a set time.

Idaho also has one of the most prescriptive funding models in the nation. For example, the 2018 K-12 budget includes more than two dozen mandatory line items. More than 75 percent of the total state appropriation must be spent in those specific categories, which cover everything from salaries to reading initiatives, classroom technology, professional development and transportation services. Only about 24 percent, or $405 million, can be used for discretionary expenditures.

Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, said the problem with this is that schools end up focusing more on state mandates rather than educational outcomes.

“Principals generally believe they could do more with the money they have if state mandates weren’t in the way,” she told the committee. “They’re conditioned to think, ‘I live in a system with too many rules, otherwise we could do better.’ So let’s remove the rules.”

Roza, who studies education finance issues nationwide, said lawmakers often are hesitant to give local districts more flexibility because they aren’t sure they’ll make the “right” decision.

“A common concern is that if they don’t earmark appropriations for a certain thing, districts won’t spend it on that,” she said. “My question for them is, what if student achievement goes up, but a district hasn’t spent the money on the things you wanted? I feel like if student achievement is going up, you should tolerate a lot of things.”

Roza noted that California shifted to a student-based funding model about four years ago. The formula features a base amount of per-pupil funding that varies according to grade level, as well as additional money reflecting poverty, English proficiency and other special-needs factors.

“Some people worried the district would ‘go rogue’ and not spend the money in ways that were consistent with good outcomes, or just give it all away to teachers,” she said. “But that didn’t happen. In fact, when you look at how the money was (spent) before and after, it was startlingly similar. It was spent in largely the same way – but now it’s the districts’ choice.”

Student outcomes also have improved, Roza said, “particularly for the most vulnerable students.”

The committee, which began studying Idaho’s funding methods more than a year ago, was supportive of a student-based model. How quickly the state should make the transition, though, remains an issue.

For example, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, suggested trying out a new formula on a pilot basis in a handful of districts so lawmakers could see what effects it would have.

Roza was skeptical of that approach, saying pilot programs rarely lead to full implementation.

“I’m pretty cynical about pilots, based on what I’ve seen in other states,” she said.

“And I’m cynical about everyone locking arms and jumping,” Bedke replied.

During their discussion Friday, committee members made it clear they support maintaining the Legislature’s commitment to the new career ladder teacher pay plan, which is in the third year of a five-year phase-in timeline.

They also expressed support for using actual enrollment – rather than average daily attendance – as a way to count students. That could relieve some of the difficulty districts have in accounting for students who take online classes or who only attend public school for a portion of the day.

The committee plans to hold additional meetings Oct. 16 and Nov. 13 before finalizing its recommendations.

“I think we need two meetings to communicate with the stakeholders and to give them a chance to share their thoughts on what we’ve done today,” said Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, the committee co-chairman.


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