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Schools budget shouldn’t be blank check

Schools budget shouldn’t be blank check

Wayne Hoffman
April 1, 2013

Had it passed, I believe the $1.3 billion spending plan for Idaho’s public schools would have been a disaster. State lawmakers were right to reject it days ago on an 18-17 vote. And much as I wish the Legislature would adjourn for the year, I’m glad they’ll stay to get this appropriation done correctly.

The bill would have provided a blank check to school districts to fund pay-for-performance and school technology—two areas that I believe are critical to the future success of Idaho’s public schools. But the bill before the Legislature failed to fill in key details and looked to be nothing more than a giveaway to schools with little expectation of a return on investment. This could have resulted in few student achievement gains from tech and merit pay, leading future policymakers to view either proposition through jaundiced eyes.

For example, the spending bill called for Idaho schools to spend $21 million for “differential pay” in the form of grants for "Excellence in Achievement" awards. The attributes of such awards were left largely to the districts, and as much as 40 percent of the awards could have been used for "professional development, leadership, and resources necessary to implement Idaho core mathematical and English language arts standards" and other portions may be used to "pay any variable rate-based employer benefit costs."

Unlike previous attempts to implement pay-for-performance going back to 2007, the Legislature never defined the details. Not every point needed to be delineated by lawmakers, but one would have hoped some of the metrics could have been outlined.

The same is true for the $13.4 million proposed to be spent on technology. A portion of that spending was earmarked for technology pilot projects, but the bill left no clear understanding of how that money would be spent or what results were expected from such projects. Nor did the technology provision attempt to make constructive use of technology that would mutually benefit student achievement and taxpayers in a rural state such as Idaho.

This led to Statehouse rumors that Rupert Republican Dean Cameron, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, put the provision in the bill to benefit Paul Elementary, which has been experimenting with iPads to boost student achievement. So ubiquitous was the rumor that Cameron felt compelled to address and deny the allegation during debate on the Senate floor.

But the whole issue could have been avoided if the issues were vetted properly—in the House and Senate germane committees instead of in the spending committee. You see, the budget panel should merely be spending the cash as allocated by policy. In this case, the budget panel went rogue, leading to the revolt.

Paul Elementary, and other elementary schools in Idaho, probably could use new technology. So could other districts. For example, in Avery, where it costs about $60,000 per student, technology could be used to reduce costs and bring world-class educational opportunities to the students of that rural community. Well-defined policy recommendations can help get the state there.

No one wants the Legislature to remain in Boise a second longer than it needs to. In this case, the budget committee botched the spending blueprint for education; the Senate caught the error and stopped it, prolonging the legislative session. In this case, the extra time in town is more than worth it.

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