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Friday, February 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eye on Boise: New school funding formula unveiled, lawmakers roll up sleeves

The Idaho Statehouse, seen Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, in Boise. (DREW NASH / AP)
The Idaho Statehouse, seen Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, in Boise. (DREW NASH / AP)

After three years of study, research, input and work, the Legislature’s interim committee that worked on a new approach to dividing Idaho’s school funding handed its work off to the House and Senate education committees last week, which now will take the lead on refining the final product.

“This is us saying to you: Tag, you’re it,” House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, told the two committees at a briefing in a crowded Lincoln Auditorium late Thursday afternoon, with an audience of more than 100 looking on.

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, who co-chaired the interim committee, said Idaho’s 1994-vintage funding formula is sadly out of date, and new ways of educating kids have been tacked on or shoe-horned in without an overall, coherent plan, creating more and more complexity. The idea, she said, is to “change Idaho’s school funding formula to something that is much more understandable, much more transparent, much more flexible at the local district level.”

Michael Griffith, a consultant from the Education Commission of the States, said, “The current system that you have is one that has a lot of gaps and a lot of trap doors that you can figure out how to work and how to change your funding, without changing the number of kids that you educate.”

The proposed new formula is enrollment-based, with funding pegged on a per-student basis. Then weights are added, to reflect the increased costs of educating certain types of students: those in special education, the gifted and talented, English-language learners, the youngest in grades K-3.

“There aren’t gaps that exist in these types of formulas,” Griffith told the education committees. “That’s why most states have moved to these types of formulas. It’s very hard to game the system.”

He gave an example: Idaho currently has only about 3.5 percent of its students in alternative schools, and they only exist in about 50 school districts and charters. “The other 120 or so don’t” have them, he said. “There’s a group of six or eight that have a very high percentage, over 25 percent.”

The reason: The current funding system provides no way to fund additional services required by at-risk students other than building an alternative school. “You have to create a separate building,” he said. “That means additional costs.”

Adding a funding weight factor for at-risk students would better account for those educational costs statewide, he said. However, “You don’t want to punish those districts for following the rules all these years.” One possibility might be to grandfather in those existing alternative-school students but not admit any new ones, and phase them out as those students graduate.

“You really don’t want to have as many alternative schools as you currently have in the state,” Griffith said. “You have the same number as Illinois; Illinois has 10 times the population. They were created as a function of your school funding formula.”

The proposal would move Idaho from the current 34 line items separated out in the public school budget – for which districts have to spend the state money they get on the identified purpose – to just 14 smaller line items that are outside the per-student funding formula. And 91 percent of the money would go through the per-student formula; just 9 percent would be allocated outside it, for such fixed costs as unemployment insurance and bond levy equalization.

It’s up to the House and Senate education committees this year to make the final calls on which line items should be kept, and what funding weights should be assigned to various factors.

“Don’t think that you just get to rubber-stamp what we did,” Bedke told the committee members. “You’ll have to engage, you’ll have to work with your local districts.”

Depending on how the various factors are adjusted, some districts could get more or less funding, based on how many of their students meet the various weighting factors. The formula also anticipates keeping all districts at least at their current funding level for the first three years, through a “hold harmless” provision. The cost of that provision will vary, depending on how the factors within the formula are set; one initial estimate put it at more than $6 million per year.

Bedke said, “We’ve got a year to work on this, but there are some important policy decisions that need to be made this year, so that this can be the funding model for the next year.”

Horman recalled her experience as a school board member, trying to keep up with all the requirements her districts faced on how it spent its state-allocated funds. “We want to free that space up,” she said. “We really do hope to spur innovation and local control, to serve individual students’ needs.”

So if a district wanted to spend more on, say, literacy or college and career advising, or a different pressing local need, it could. School districts and schools, Horman said, will “realize, wait, we don’t have to do it that way anymore – because the funding formula is not bossing us around.”

House Education Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said the House panel will meet Monday and devote its entire meeting to more discussion of the proposed formula. “We, the germane committees, are going to make a lot of decisions about a lot of things in this formula,” he said.

Said Griffith: “It’s all sort of designed to give you an idea of what your decisions cost.”

More money in school budget

Gov. Brad Little has submitted a series of revisions to his proposed budget, most of them small adjustments, but there’s a big one: Public schools are expecting an increase in support units that adds up to a $3.5 million increase in his proposed public school budget. That would take the budget for public schools next year from a 5.94 percent increase to a 6.14 percent increase in state general funds.

Support units are a measure of student enrollment, with one support unit roughly equal to a classroom full of kids. New figures show 41 more of those units than anticipated.

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