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Eye On Boise

Report: Idaho’s school funding system is trending toward violating state Constitution

Idaho's former longtime chief state economist, Mike Ferguson, has released a 20-page report on public school funding that reaches a series of startling conclusions: Public school funding, as a share of total state spending, has dropped dramatically since 2000. Even as state lawmakers in 2006 eliminated the key property tax levy for school operations while raising the state's sales tax by a penny, schools that saw decreasing state funding have turned increasingly to property tax levies, which, unlike the levy eliminated in 2006, are no longer "equalized" with state funding and accentuate disparities in wealth among the state's school districts. The result: Idaho's current school funding system may be violating two key provisions of the state Constitution, requiring the Legislature to "establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools" and requiring taxes to be imposed uniformly. You can read my full story here at

"Actions that drive local school districts into making dramatic increases in the use of local property tax resources ... raise serious doubt that the Legislature is fulfilling its Constitutional obligations," Ferguson wrote. "It is probably not realistic to expect a quick fix. It is reasonable to expect an open and honest discussion of the direction of Idaho's public school funding, and whether it is living up to the duties and responsibilities handed down by Idaho's founding fathers. Hopefully this report will contribute to that discussion."

You can read the full report here; it explores Idaho's public school funding from 1980 to 2013. Among the figures revealed by its analysis: Idaho spent 34 percent of its state spending on public schools, on average, in the 1980s and 1990s; that had dropped to 26 percent by fiscal year 2012. The share of Idaho's personal income that went to schools - which Ferguson describes as Idaho's "funding effort" for schools, or "the share of our aggregate income invested in our children," dropped from a steady 4.4 percent average in the '80s and '90s, and 4.4 percent in fiscal year 2000, to 3.5 percent in fiscal 2012; in the governor's executive budget for 2013, it fell to 3.4 percent. Ferguson noted that's a 23 percent decline, a change he called "a stunning reduction in the state's commitment to public schools."

And more than two-thirds of Idaho's school districts now have supplemental property tax levies, which are voter-approved local taxes that raise sharply varying amounts from one district to the next, depending on the local tax base. Even after the elimination of the major operations levy in 2006, "Considerable amounts of public school funding are still derived from property taxes, and the relative share is once again increasing," he wrote.

Ferguson is now director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, a non-profit, non-partisan grant-funded organization whose mission is "to provide Idaho citizens and elected officials with fact-based information and analysis they can use to make informed public policy decisions."

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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