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Education spending in Idaho nothing close to 'worst'

Education spending in Idaho nothing close to 'worst'

Wayne Hoffman
July 16, 2012

Earlier this month a story, which was transmitted throughout the state, incorrectly characterized the status of school funding in Idaho. The report, originally from Spokesman-Review writer Betsy Russell, contained these exact words: “Idaho ranks second-worst in the nation for the amount of money it spends per pupil, the U.S. Census Bureau said.”

As my friend Ralph Smeed used to say, “Interesting, if true.” But it’s not true. Not in the slightest. Yet that story was picked up by the Associated Press and rerun everywhere in Idaho. People now believe that Idaho’s per-pupil spending is the “second worst in the nation,” according to the official measure by federal government. Nowhere in the report does it categorize any level of spending — high or low — as best or worst. The report merely states the facts and displays the data gathered by the federal government, while assuming no judgments about what the “right” amount of funding may be. Therefore, the idea that big school spending is “best” or that low school spending is “worst” is a product of the reporter’s imagination. Or more precisely, it is the product of the mistaken belief that more money equals best, and less money equals worst. Of course, that’s not true. Just ask Howard Hughes or Lindsay Lohan how that works out.

True, Idaho ranks as spending almost the least of all states per pupil. Left out of the Census Bureau’s rubric is whether that results in a successful education. But one can certainly argue that some states shovel money into their school systems and get little value out of it. Perhaps one might designate the fleecing of taxpayers in those states, without benefit of results, as worthy of the label “worst.” As State Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath pointed out, “Funding is a factor in education, but it’s not the most important factor … and it is not the factor that determines the quality of an education system.” McGrath correctly observed that Idaho students performed better than other states in national testing for reading, math and science — states, by the way, that spend far more per student on education.

Still, Russell’s relentless erroneousness continued, with a notation in her story that on the basis of per-capita income, “Idaho improved slightly from last year’s ranking of 41st, coming in 38th. But it’s still far below where Idaho ranked in 2001, when it was 17th.” Improved? Improvement is a measure of spending more per capita? Mike Ferguson, a friend and former state economist, but director of the liberal-leaning Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, embraced the imaginary metric: “It’s just that we’re basically, in these relative terms, getting even worse compared to what we have been able to muster previously,” Russell reported him saying.

Chris Carlson, the former reporter and press secretary to Gov. Cecil Andrus, wrote in his column that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna is “a certifiable idiot” because Luna won’t join in the chorus of liberals demanding more money be shoved into every crack and crevice of every school building in Idaho. It’s a shame that Carlson (twice) resorts to ad hominem attacks to make his point, because it detracts from another nugget. Writes Carlson, “If one looks south to Utah, what do they see: a state that does a better job than Idaho in support for public education, not to mention an impressive commitment to private education as demonstrated by funding for Brigham Young University in Provo as well as branch campuses like BYU-Idaho in Rexburg.”

As a measure of per-pupil spending, Idaho allocates the second-least of any state toward public education. Which state spends the least per pupil? Why, that would be Utah.

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