Sophie Stokes spends hundreds of dollars each year out of her own pocket on school supplies for her students. She buys highlighters, glue sticks and other items that – although not always bare necessities – help make her classes more organized and engaging for her students.
And that’s not out of the ordinary for teachers in the Nampa School District, where she works, she said.
“My highest priority is making sure my kids love to learn when they come into the classroom,” she said. “Everything I’ve done has been directed at that.”
With funding a priority, Reclaim Idaho, an organization that has been collecting signatures for months to get an initiative put on the November ballot to better fund Idaho education, said it is optimistic it will meet its deadline of April 30.
The group, which took on the successful Medicaid expansion drive in 2018, is now in the final stretch.
To put the initiative in front of the voting public, volunteers need to gather signatures from 6% of registered voters from at least 18 legislative districts, and from 6% of voters statewide.
Reclaim Idaho filed a lawsuit last year after the Idaho Legislature passed a law that would have made it more difficult to get an initiative on the ballot. The law would have required the organization to collect signatures from at least 6% of voters in all 35 legislative districts.
The Idaho Supreme Court ruled the law was unconstitutional. In its opinion, the court wrote that the effect of the law was “to prevent a perceived, yet unsubstantiated fear of the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ by replacing it with an actual ‘tyranny of the minority.’ ”
Reclaim Idaho pushes for more signatures
The initiative, called the Quality Education Act, would restore the corporate tax rate to 8% from 6.5%, and raise taxes on individuals making more than $250,000 a year and couples making more than $500,000 a year. That increase, of about 4.5%, would apply only to money earned beyond those amounts.
The group expects it would bring in more than $300 million a year for public education.
If the initiative made it onto the ballot and passed, funds would be distributed across the state on a per-student basis, and districts would spend those funds at their own discretion, under the oversight of the State Board of Education. Funds could go toward more competitive teacher salaries, or programs such as career-technical education, full-day kindergarten and special education, according to Reclaim Idaho.
Idaho consistently ranks last or near last in its funding per student. The most recent report from the National Education Association put Idaho in 51st, behind all states and Washington, D.C.
In recent months, lawmakers have been taking steps to increase funding to public schools. Gov. Brad Little included in his budget an 11% hike in the state’s K-12 education spending, to about $2.3 billion in the next fiscal year. Lawmakers have also approved bills that would give teachers bonuses and help ease the burden that high health insurance costs put on school employees.
It’s unclear how the increases in funding will impact Idaho’s ranking in per-student funding. It could bump the state up a few spots, but it may not put the state at a significantly higher ranking, Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, told the Idaho Statesman.
Luke Mayville, the co-founder of Reclaim Idaho, said the group has so far collected enough signatures from nine districts. He expects that number to be 10 by this weekend. The group needs fewer than 1,200 signatures from 11 other districts, with some of those needing only a few hundred more.
Overall, Reclaim Idaho has collected nearly 68,000 signatures. The group needs a total of about 65,000 valid signatures, so Mayville said volunteers are aiming to collect at least 80,000 total, in case signatures contain non-registered voters, repeats or other errors.
“We are in a very strong position,” Mayville told the Statesman in a recent interview.
The biggest challenge throughout the past several months has been the pandemic, he said. The virus put a strain on volunteers and made it more difficult to hold meetings and organize signature gathering events. Some who were interested in volunteering also couldn’t take the health risks, Mayville said.
“We had to get creative,” he said. “We had to do even more to just get out into the communities.”
In the final push, he said the organization will be touring around the state more frequently, visiting communities, working alongside local volunteers and helping to collect the final signatures needed.
Teacher pay, facilities a challenge in Idaho
Stokes, who teaches English language arts at Nampa High School, said educators face a number of challenges. Most acutely, teacher pay in the area is not keeping up with the rising cost of living.
“Teaching is definitely a giving profession in a lot of ways, but it’s a field of people who are very qualified and want to be compensated adequately for that,” she said. “As Idaho has gotten more and more popular over the past two years and the cost of living rises, it gets really difficult to retain good teachers.”
Most teachers she knows have other jobs or sources of income, she said. And pay, she added, can play a big part of the reason some teachers will leave to go to other districts, other states or other professions altogether.
“I’m pretty nervous about how many people are going to be here in my school and in my district,” she said. “Especially with the pandemic, things have been hard in the community.”
The pandemic put a significant strain on teachers, who had to deal with remote and hybrid learning and were often caught in the middle of debates over masks and COVID-19 protocols.
Stokes added that schools have relied on levies to operate. For years, up until this past summer, the roofs in her school would leak whenever it rained. Buckets would be placed in the hallways to catch the water, she said.
Mayville said it’s become even clearer over the past few months that teachers and support staff across the state are facing “immense strain.”
“It’s becoming nearly impossible for districts to hire paraprofessionals, and bus drivers, and any number of other positions,” he said. “So the problem of teacher pay and support staff wages is very clearly reaching a crisis level.”
This month, Stokes’ students are reading “Ender’s Game.” Walking into her classroom in the morning, all the lights are out besides a few space-themed starlight projectors. Those were items she purchased out of her own pocket.
“Teachers in general work way beyond the required hours and want to … provide the best education for their kids,” she said. “But we’re also trained professionals who have gone through, in many cases, expensive programs to get the credentials to be really good at our jobs, and want to be paid adequately.”
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