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Idaho schools are about to get millions. Where should that money go?

Oct. 19, 2022 Updated Wed., Oct. 19, 2022 at 9:28 p.m.

By Becca Savransky Idaho Statesman

Volunteers across Idaho spent more than a year working to get an initiative on the November ballot that would have provided millions of dollars for Idaho education through taxes on the wealthy and corporations.

But after the Legislature passed a bill earlier this year that allocated $410 million toward education, using sales tax revenue instead, the group pulled the initiative from the ballot and pivoted to a new goal: ensuring the money goes toward urgent needs in public schools.

Luke Mayville, the co-founder of Reclaim Idaho – the grassroots group responsible for getting an education initiative on the November ballot – said securing better pay and benefits for teachers and classified staff is a top priority. The group’s ballot initiative focused on the challenges school districts face to compete for qualified teachers and support staff.

“So whether it’s improving health insurance benefits, raising wages,” Mayville told the Idaho Statesman, “we’ve got to do everything we can to make our school districts more competitive.”

Reclaim Idaho took credit for pushing lawmakers to make the historic investment in Idaho schools and said it must now do everything possible to hold the Legislature accountable.

The money included in the bill the Legislature passed will be allocated during next year’s session. According to the bill, $330 million will go toward K-12 education and $80 will go toward training for in-demand careers.

Mayville said the organization is developing its strategy for the months ahead.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that people all across the state are speaking out,” he said. “Thousands of people joined our quality education act campaign. And we know that there are tens of thousands more watching the issue of education funding very closely.”

Volunteers cite essential needs

Volunteers with Reclaim Idaho said they hoped the funds would be put toward the most important needs students and teachers have in the classroom.

Lori Wright, a team lead for Reclaim Idaho, said she knocked on doors in Twin Falls and Emmett and heard about how both communities struggled to keep teachers. One of the best ways to retain and attract teachers is to pay them more, she said.

Sam Sandmire, another Reclaim Idaho volunteer, said she’d like to see the money go toward urgent classroom needs Reclaim Idaho included in the initiative, such as career technical education, special education, music and arts programs and school counselors.

Sandmire said she expected the organization’s ballot initiative would have passed had it appeared on the November ballot.

To put the initiative in front of voters, volunteers needed to gather signatures from 6% of registered voters from at least 18 legislative districts, and from 6% of voters statewide. The group collected more than 100,000 signatures from every county in the state.

The Legislature should pay attention to the needs presented in the initiative, Sandmire said, because that’s “what the people of Idaho want the money spent on.”

Volunteers said they are concerned that lawmakers want to allocate some of the money toward a voucher bill that could take money away from public schools.

Republican lawmakers have proposed similar bills in previous years. Last session, Idaho lawmakers narrowly shot down a bill that would have created scholarship accounts that families could use for students’ tuition and fees at private grade schools. Opponents from education groups told legislators it would harm public schools and wasn’t a constitutional use of state dollars.

“There’s a faction of the Legislature that is actually anti-public education, and I believe they’re the minority,” Sandmire said. “But the rest of the Legislature needs to hold strong and make sure that they aren’t pressured into diverting one penny of this money to anything other than public schools.”

Teacher pay, school facilities

top priorities

The Idaho School Boards Association doesn’t publicize its legislative platform until November. But Quinn Perry, deputy director of the association, told the Statesman the top two needs coming from members are focused on pay for classified staff, which includes food service workers and bus drivers, and school facilities.

The organization is also advocating for flexibility with the funds so that school districts can use them to meet their own needs, she said.

Mike Journee, spokesperson for the Idaho Education Association, said the funding is “sorely needed,” and that the group will continue to work with lawmakers to keep up the momentum.

“(We) have a long way to go for getting to a point where we can even begin considering it to be a properly funded system,” he said.

The association’s key priorities include attracting and retaining educators to improve educational outcomes in the classroom. Journee said that includes better salaries and benefits and more mental health resources for students – such as additional counselors.

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared an emergency in children’s mental health and encouraged lawmakers to do more. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found an increase in emergency department visits related to mental health among children and teens.

“If a student is in crisis, and needs help, our educators need someone to lean on to help them with that,” Journee said.

The last issue includes addressing some of the challenges schools are facing to maintain their aging facilities as many struggle to pass bonds and levies.

Concerns arise

over defunding public schools

School districts across the state are struggling to fill staff positions – and some are having to fill open positions with people who don’t have adequate training.

Democratic Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, a member of the Senate education committee, said the funding could go toward helping districts attract and retain staff. She also mentioned the state’s aging school facilities, many of which have outlived their life spans.

Another option, she said, is to give schools enough funding so that districts can afford to buy into the state’s health insurance plan. The Legislature last year allocated funds to help schools lower health insurance costs for their employees, but didn’t give districts enough money to buy into the state’s plan. Ward-Engelking estimated that could cost an additional $80 million to $100 million.

If legislators try to divert the additional funding from public schools, Ward-Engelking said that could disenfranchise the state’s rural students who don’t have private schools in their areas, and siphon off money from already stretched public schools.

“There is a push from a certain group … to privatize education and to make it more accessible for the elite than it is for every single Idahoan,” she said. “I think we’ve got to look at what we haven’t accomplished with our public schools, before we even think about taking on private or religious school funding.”

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