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Idaho among worst for school funding

State ranks 50th for per-pupil spending

Sorensen Magnet School fourth-graders, from left, Noah Burton, Schreyer Jones and Chloe Teets, work on math problems on Tuesday. (Kathy Plonka)
Sorensen Magnet School fourth-graders, from left, Noah Burton, Schreyer Jones and Chloe Teets, work on math problems on Tuesday. (Kathy Plonka)

BOISE – Idaho ranks 50th in the nation for per-pupil spending on schools, a measurement for which the state perennially has scored a low ranking.

Now, according to the latest U.S. census report released last week, Idaho’s ranking for per capita spending based on personal income in the state has dropped dramatically, from 15th in the nation in 2001 to 41st.

“I think we are in a race to the bottom here, it seems like,” said Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, the state’s teachers union. “Unfortunately, it certainly is not going to be good for the state, and not for our students either.”

State school officials took a less dire view of Idaho’s per-pupil spending rank dropping to 50th in the nation, down from 48th in 2001, saying results are more important than spending levels.

In Washington state, however, its middle-of-the-pack rankings triggered concern. Washington ranked 32nd in the nation for per-pupil spending in the new census report, up from 33rd in 2001.

“We don’t believe that the state is providing enough money for students,” said Nathan Olson, communications manager for Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. He noted that a state Supreme Court case is pending over inadequate school funding, and said, “The state isn’t meeting its obligation to adequately and amply fund education.”

In Idaho, Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, said, “We do not believe that per-pupil spending or the amount of money you put into education is the most important factor in determining a great public education system.”

In per-pupil spending, Idaho beat only Utah, which ranked 51st (the list includes the District of Columbia). But McGrath said when it comes to student achievement, “Idaho and Utah tend to outperform most states that outspend them in education.”

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Idaho eighth-graders scored well above the national average in 2009 in math, reading and science; so did Utah’s and Washington’s.

“We at the state level are focused on results in education, and how do we get those results,” McGrath said. “I think Superintendent Luna has made it clear that we want more money for education. … If there’s more money available, we do believe that it’s important to put it into education in Idaho and make an investment there. However, if that money’s not available because of the economy we’re currently in, we have to look at what we’re currently spending and what results we’ve gotten from it.”

Both states have seen additional cuts to schools since the census report data was gathered; it’s from the 2008-’09 school year.

Washington’s ranking for education spending per $1,000 of personal income is low – 46th – the same level it hit in 2001, but that’s partly because of the state’s relatively high personal income, which was well above the national average in both 2009 and 2001.

Utah has consistently ranked low in per-pupil spending in part because nearly a third of its population is under age 18, compared with a national average of less than a quarter. For school spending per $1,000 in personal income, Utah ranked 38th.

Both Washington and Idaho changed little in rankings from 2001 to the new report, with the exception of Idaho’s dramatic drop in spending versus personal income.

Olson, of the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, said another study conducted last year by Education Week magazine that factored in regional cost differences ranked Washington 44th in the nation for per-pupil spending, with Idaho ranked 45th and Utah 51st.

“We feel that it’s not good enough,” he said. “We don’t want to be 32nd, neither do we want to be 44th.”

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