If you ask any Idaho state politician about the No. 1 issue affecting their constituents, they will tell you “education.” It’s on their websites, their social media channels, and on every piece of paper they hand out at the door. The answer has become almost automatic. No matter what part of the state you live in, you will likely get the same answer.
I think it’s a great answer. Especially in a place like Idaho and my home of Bonner County where the poverty rates are above the national average. Receiving a quality education is the ticket out of poverty and into family-supporting jobs. That leads to stronger, more self-sufficient communities and ultimately a stronger state. Investing in education not only leads people into prosperity, but away from drugs, crime, social services, and all the other troubles that disproportionately afflict people living in poverty.
The problem is, our politicians talk a good game when it comes to improving education in Idaho, but they never back it up where it counts: at the Statehouse. You’ve all seen the numbers: Idaho is 50th in the nation in per-pupil investments. Idaho’s rural teachers earn some of the lowest salaries in the country.
Until 2006 the funding for education in Idaho included a statewide property tax levy. In 2006 the state dropped the property tax and enacted a 1% sales tax increase to 6%. Ever since then the gap between what the state provides and the cost of public education has been growing steadily.
The gap is now a third of the cost of public education. Virtually every school district in the state is asking hardworking, middle-income Idahoans to shoulder an ever-increasing local property tax burden to fund the gap. Some districts have a large assessed property tax base and can raise substantial funds to fill the gaps with a minimum property tax levy. Other districts either do not have the tax base or do not have the voter support to raise levy monies. “Have” districts like Blaine County or West Ada move ahead while “have not” districts like Boundary or West Bonner in northern Idaho fall further behind.
In Idaho, our state guarantees an “adequate and equitable education.” But the quality of education a kid receives in Idaho is very much dependent on where their family lives. Do they happen to live in a “have” district or “have-not” district? It’s not right. It’s not fair. But this is the current reality.
The end result is easy to predict. Last year, Idaho left 6,300 STEM-related jobs unfilled, which resulted in $412 million in unclaimed wages. Many of those jobs could have gone to kids right out of high school with the right training. Many others could be filled with just a certificate program or two-year degree. Those wages should have gone into the pockets of Idahoans but didn’t. Nearly half-a-billion dollars could put a big dent in the poverty level in our great state, while giving our kids a fair shot at prosperity here at home.
The politicians will tell you that Idaho students outperform the substandard investments we make in our schools. This argument is based on test scores and similar measures. However, Idaho families are not interested in test scores if it doesn’t lead to family-supporting jobs for their kids. When it comes to education in Idaho – or any other state for that matter – the bottom line is the bottom line.
I love Idaho and Bonner County. I’ve made a good life with my family in our great state. However, too many years have gone by with our elected state leaders failing to address Idaho’s education and jobs crisis. That’s why I am supporting Reclaim Idaho’s “Invest in Idaho” citizen ballot initiative. It aims to bring investments of $170 million to $200 million every year into our public schools. Those are badly needed investments that will help make teacher salaries competitive, improve our state’s career-technical programs and give our kids the skills they need to compete for those thousands of family-supporting jobs that go unfilled every year in Idaho. It’s a bold plan for a system that desperately needs one.
This past session, dozens of our elected leaders denigrated the constitutional right of Idahoans to bring ballot initiatives. The next time they do that, they ought to remember their own constitutional duty to “provide a general, uniform, and thorough system of public, free common schools.”
Reclaim Idaho’s ballot initiative could fulfill both duties, and make Idaho stronger, safer and more prosperous at the same time.
Gary Suppiger is a member of the Lake Pend Oreille School District board of trustees.
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