Two education leaders — Boise State University President Bob Kustra and Idaho School Boards Association (ISBA) President Wayne Freedman — told lawmakers Thursday that they’d like more flexibility and control in spending state education dollars during difficult economic conditions. They also advocated for minimizing cuts to education.
“We don’t expect you to find a magic bullet, but we hope to hold onto what we have,” Kustra told the Senate Education Committee. The draft proposal for the current education budget would not have reductions to K-12 education until July, but colleges and universities would see an additional $10 million in reductions.
Kustra said those cuts, and similar reductions in other states, are helping to change universities in the U.S. “In the long run, American public higher education as we have known it for two centuries is no longer public in the way we’ve known it to be.” He said a proportional reduction in state funding for schools is helping other countries catch up with the U.S. “This decline in state support is occurring simultaneously at a time when the United States of America is losing rank in the world when it comes to where this preeminent system of public higher education stands.” He said European and Asian countries are outpacing the U.S. in enrolling and graduating student in college as well as in patents for new ideas.
Kustra said that universities are losing state funding, but not state oversight and regulations, which hampers BSU’s flexibility. He shared a story with lawmakers about his state mandate to keep travel costs down for the BSU football team:
“When you have to put football players on planes every year, you really worry about the safety of the aircraft. Three years ago, we had to take the lowest bid. We knew it was from some outfit out of Las Vegas that was substandard. It scared the wits out of me to get on that plane. I had to get on that plane because here in Idaho there’s a rule or a law that says ‘lowest bid period — no other factors taken into consideration.’ Try that out in your business. I don’t know anybody anywhere in the business world that would live with a system like that.”
Kustra said he’d like more flexibility on purchasing and better cooperation and organization among the state’s four universities and colleges. Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, said that idea has been a non-starter in the past. “I’ve been here since 1993, and we have tried… to get you presidents to cooperate with one another,” he said. “And it’s been very, very difficult.”
Freedman said school board members are also asking for more leeway in spending state education dollars. “We request that you give us the flexibility as much as possible to deal with the cutbacks in a way that will not devastate the kids,” he said. “Let us, who are elected by our local constituents to provide a school for our kids, who know what’s going on in each area, to make those decisions.” School board members from across the state, in Boise for an ISBA convention, filled the committee hearing at the Capitol. “My hope and expectation is that we can avoid the amputation of necessary resources that will cripple education in Idaho,” he said.
Freedman’s call for local control of state education dollars stands in contrast to Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who wants funding for some programs preserved. The two lawmakers wo chair education committees in the Legislature, Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said they’re working to please both sides. Both Nonini and Goedde told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) Thursday that they want to preserve state funding for some of Luna’s school programs, including the Idaho Math Initiative, the Idaho Reading Initiative, and ISAT remediation. “These programs have proven to be very successful, and we need to maintain successful programs,” Nonini said. “We get the fact that the budget’s going to be cut. But let’s do our best not to eliminate good programs.”
Goedde agreed on preserving funding for the three programs, but acknowledged the role of school boards. “We also recognize that the best decisions are often made locally,” Goedde said. “There is a strong argument for broader flexibility.” Goedde has said he won’t get into how to spend education dollars until JFAC sets an education budget. That is expected to happen March 1.
Freedman said school districts would like to know their level of state spending as soon as possible. “March 1st would be a really good time frame.”