Following a contentious debate lasting more than two hours, the Idaho Senate Wednesday rejected a K-12 public education budget that had been previously approved by the House. The vote was 18-17.
“We are caught between the policies of the past, and our desire to improve education going forward,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC), as he presented House Bill 323, the public education budget that had passed in the House on March 22. “This is not a perfect budget, but it is a good one.”
Cameron presented a bill that would have budgeted slightly less than $1.4 billion for K-12 public schools for the 2013-14 school year, noting that “this is still about $100 million below where we were at in 2009; we’re just trying to help all our children.”
After Cameron highlighted several facets of the budget, criticism quickly emerged over the budget itself, but also, over the way in which the budget was compiled.
Several members of the Senate noted that the budget should have come from the Senate Education Committee, a committee that receives public testimony and stakeholder input, and lamented that it had been formulated directly in JFAC, a committee that receives no public input at all.
Cameron said if the K-12 budget is sent back to the House and to the Senate education committees for consideration and hearings, the session could last another week. Leadership in both houses had been predicting legislators would pack up and head home on Friday.
“I can’t go home with this bad bill out there,” said Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls.” I don’t see why we’re doing this without committee hearings from our germane committees. There is not a good plan here for how we are to spend the teachers’ pay-for-performance money. Some of these school districts are unsure how they will keep the lights on, but this spends money in ways that don’t help. Let’s keep the lights on, put the money where it should be and use the committee process properly.”
“My critique is not meant to be an attack on the chairman (Cameron, co-chair of JFAC),” said Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene. “I’ve got no problem with the bottom line on the budget, my problem lies with some specific areas of the budget.”
Goedde, who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, noted that Cameron’s budget allocated $21 million for “excellence in education awards” to be paid to high-achieving teachers. However, according to Goedde, the budget did not contain clear and sufficient criteria for how those awards would be attained. “This allows the bar to be set at ankle height, not a high bar,” Goedde stated. “These awards are supposed to go to classified staff, yet there is no provision for classified staff to have input in this.”
Goedde also lamented that “this budget allows local school district superintendents to move money around from one fund to another, but there’s no requirement to report how those budgeting changes are made.”
Goedde further noted that the budget appropriated money for school technology “pilot projects,” but did not provide any specifics for how the money would be spent or how the results of the projects would be measured. “In theory the superintendent (State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna) could send all of this money to one school, that is how vague this is,” Goedde said.
“In this day, transparency and protocol are key,” noted Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston. “In the future, the education budget needs to go through the education committee, but this time I will support this bill.”
Her concerns were echoed by a fellow senator, but he chose to vote against the budget. “We spend a lot of time talking about stakeholder input,” said Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian. “This bill does not accommodate that. It will not take a long time to craft new legislation. There are already new proposals being drafted. I recommend a ‘no’ vote on this, and I am voting ‘no.’”