Advocates for more public school spending certainly got a big boost last week from a report that shows school districts utilizing supplemental property tax levies more than ever—$188 million in the last budget year.
But absent from the discussion is a larger question about how much it really takes to educate an Idaho school student. In Avery, it costs as much as $43,000 per student. Education from Midvale to Mullan costs between $13,000 and $17,000 a kid, according to the most recent State Department of Education data. Preston and Jerome clock in at about $4,700 a student. Charter schools come with the least cost, generally under $4,500 per student.
Location and size don’t seem to matter a great deal. Students at West Ada School District (Meridian) are educated for about $5,600, but it costs $7,700 per student at Boise. The figure for Kootenai School District students is $9,700. But at nearby Coeur d’Alene School District and Post Falls, it’s $6,000 and $5,300, respectively. In Idaho Falls, School District 91, it’s $5,600 a child. But in neighboring Bonneville School District, it’s $5,000.
Clearly, there’s something wrong here.
The focus shouldn’t on school district levies, or even on the amount of increase in state spending for education year after year. Rather, it seems some attention ought to be paid to the state’s byzantine formula for funding public schools. That funding formula is 20 years old. The most radical recent change to the way we fund schools came in 2006 when Gov. Jim Risch got state lawmakers to replace property taxes with sales taxes. So, where the money comes from—state sales tax instead of property taxes—has changed.
But still, the fundamental way in which we figure out how much money to give to each school has not changed. All of it starts and ends with the school funding formula. The formula predates the Internet, smart phones and 3-D printers. When the funding formula was created, a dial-up modem with a 14.4k speed was considered blazing fast. When the funding formula was first created, some people would still trust their daughters with Bill Clinton.
Put another way, an entire generation of Idaho children were born, educated and either entered college or the workforce since the last time the funding formula was overhauled.
The funding formula should be reconstituted to encourage innovation, local control and education choice. It should give school boards authority to attract and retain top talent and to reward that talent for hard work and for results. The funding formula should encourage the creative use of technology, so that schools can do a better job concentrating resources on kids who need the most attention, while still allowing high-achieving kids get ahead.
There is no question that right now, people are thinking intently about how to best fund Idaho’s schools and for how much money. But in truth, we can’t even begin to have a serious conversation on that point until lawmakers are willing to do the hard work of fixing the way schools are funded.