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‘We can do better’: Idaho governor announces $2 billion in funding for school buildings

The Idaho Capitol building shown in Boise.  (Tribune News Service)
By Ian Max Stevenson Idaho Statesman

Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Monday announced a $2 billion investment in public schools over the next 10 years, a large contribution aimed at shoring up dilapidated infrastructure at schools across the state.

Little said the investment, which he announced in his State of the State address, provides property tax relief that would also provide school districts with the ability to repair and replace their school buildings, citing reporting from the Idaho Statesman and ProPublica. Local school districts have long struggled to fix their dilapidated, aging school buildings, in part because of the high two-thirds voter approval threshold that school bonds require. Schools face leaking roofs, collapsing ceilings from water damage and failing plumbing, the investigation from the Statesman and ProPublica found.

“We’ve all seen the pictures and videos of some Idaho schools that are neglected – crumbling, leaking, falling apart,” Little said. “In one school I visited, raw sewage is seeping into a space under the cafeteria. Folks, we can do better.”

“As elected leaders, it is not just our constitutional obligation but our moral obligation as well to prioritize and strengthen public schools,” Little added.

Little’s proposed investment includes $75 million for a state education grants program that gives money to graduating high school students who enroll in in-demand job training programs.

Education has been a focus of Little’s since he became governor in 2019. The state increased school funding by 16.4% last year and added $410 million in tax revenue funding for schools in 2022.

Little’s budget director, Alex Adams, told reporters Monday that he hopes to raise a $1 billion bond, which would be distributed to school districts around the state by a to-be-determined formula. The money could be used for school expansions or major renovations, Adams said. The other $1 billion would come from state sales tax revenue, with $125 million per year for construction and $75 million for maintenance over the next ten years.

Adams said the governor’s office expects the specifics of the school funding plan to be sorted out during the Legislative session.

“We’re the first to acknowledge that we’re not coming in and saying this is the plan,” he said. “We’re coming to the Legislature, saying, ‘Let’s work together.’ ”

Still, Idaho consistently ranks among the bottom in per-student and school infrastructure funding.

Little’s proposals for the year also include money for university infrastructure, transportation and a mental health facility.

During his speech, Little also touted Idaho being “the first state to ban critical race theory in our schools” and signing “a bill defending integrity in women’s sports,” in reference to a bill banning transgender women and girls from competing in female athletics in schools.

New school funding amid school choice debate

Little’s proposed injection of funding into Idaho’s public schools comes as lawmakers in the Legislature are debating ways to use public funds to help residents pay for private schools or home-schooling.

A group of lawmakers proposed offering up to $5,000 in tax rebates to parents who choose not to send their children to public schools this month.

During his speech, Little said he supports “expanding school choice” in ways that do “not draw resources away from our public schools.” He told reporters afterward that he would have concerns about “anything that significantly detracts from longterm, ongoing funding” for public education.

Some other states have already implemented rebates or education savings accounts, also known as school vouchers. Teachers unions and public school advocates have largely opposed such measures over concerns that they would decrease funding for public schools.

“This policy is not about helping kids who need it, it’s about siphoning funds from public schools in order to provide a massive giveaway for private-school families,” Reclaim Idaho, an advocacy group that supports higher public school funding, said in a news release about the tax rebate proposal. Reclaim Idaho noted that a large majority of voucher funding in states with existing programs has gone to students already enrolled in public schools.

House Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star, told reporters after Little’s speech that he thinks it would be feasible to pass new school infrastructure funding and a school choice bill at the same time.

“If it’s done right, I think we can get both done,” he said.