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Unraveling the school levy narratives

Unraveling the school levy narratives

Brian Almon
May 13, 2023

Numerous communities throughout Idaho are preparing to vote on school levies next Tuesday. Before going to the polls, voters deserve the benefit of as much information and as many perspectives as possible. Unfortunately, both the school system and corporate media have only one message: More money.

It’s time to set the record straight on the myths surrounding the need for more cash, the lack of a clear link between increased funding and better academic outcomes, the sneaky tricks used to hide the true cost of the levy, and the downright unfair tactic of holding students hostage with threats of cutting classes and staff.

Everyone agrees that public education has problems. Overcrowded and worn-out school buildings, failing test scores, and radical left-wing indoctrination have pushed the system to a point of crisis.

There are many options to consider when looking at how to remedy these problems, ranging from modest reforms such as the Empowering Parents Grant and expanded charter schools to more groundbreaking ideas like education savings accounts that provide parents with genuine school choice. However, the public school establishment and their media allies cling to a single solution: more tax dollars. They are willing to hold our children hostage to secure those funds.

For Idaho’s corporate media, government is the solution to every problem. Local reporters almost always default toward favoring increased government oversight while undermining personal freedoms. An article by Sally Krutzig in the Idaho Statesman serves as a prime example. Despite being labeled as an education piece, Krutzig's article reads more like a press release from the West Ada School District. It unquestioningly accepts every claim made by the district and Superintendent Derek Bub, from concerns about population growth to bussing issues, all while echoing the notion that the proposed $500 million levy, which would raise property taxes by hundreds of dollars per year, is somehow "fiscally conservative."

The media narrative is clear: Raising taxes and expanding government-run education is an unabashed good, while alternatives that give power to parents are dangerous. But would our schools do a better job of educating children if they simply had more money?

Education spending continues to rise annually, while test scores remain disappointingly stagnant. Education spending continues to increase year after year while test scores remain flat. 

From 2015 to 2019, the state poured an additional $590 million into public schools — a 35% budget increase — only for 55% of students to be proficient in English and 44% in math. Since then, federal COVID funds generously provided another 841 million in budget growth with the tax of inflation and a ballooning national debt. Meanwhile, the lackluster performance in Idaho public schools remained stagnant.

Even if more money did correlate with achievement, districts are already swimming in cash. Between COVID relief grants, consistent general fund increases from the Legislature, and their own rainy-day funds, schools should have more than enough for what they need. “Districts are trying to pretend they don’t have all this money when they actually do,” said IFF senior education policy analyst Branden Durst this week. “They’re trying to trick property taxpayers and voters into thinking times are lean when, in fact, they’re better than ever.”

Indeed, school districts are not above using manipulative tactics and skirting the edge of electioneering laws to get their levies across the finish line.

West Ada School District, for instance, produced a slick campaign video for their levy, which was later taken down after members of the Legislature raised concerns and asked Ada County Prosecutor Jan Bennetts to review the legality of using tax dollars to promote more tax dollars.

Earlier this week, the official Parma School District Facebook account posted a long message regarding their upcoming supplemental levy, a message that their official website mirrored:

We have heard rumors that there are community members telling other community members to “vote no” on the supplemental levy in order to prove a point to administration. We hope this is not true as the continuation of the supplemental levy is for the benefit of students and the programs we want to provide in order to educate the whole child.

Parma School District #137, 5/9/23

“However you vote,” they wrote, “you should know the facts and know the message you are sending with your vote.”

The post goes on to list the positions and programs that may be cut if the levy were to fail and also threatens higher fees for athletics and clubs, larger class sizes, and more workload for additional staff.

This is another manipulative tactic that many districts use to pass their levies: holding students hostage. Just as the federal government threatens to close Mt. Rushmore when the debt ceiling is not raised, districts threaten the elimination of popular programs if the levy fails.

Coeur d'Alene Schools took a similar approach by creating a website to promote their $25 million supplemental levy. The site features a section titled "What's At Stake?" listing the employees whose jobs are at risk if the levy doesn't pass.

We previously reported on a troubling incident involving a text message sent by the principal of Dalton Elementary, castigating staff for not voting in the March levy and using public voter data to intimidate them into voting in May.

When threats and intimidation don’t do the job, then perhaps misleading voters will. Just this week, a new political action committee (PAC) called “Yes For West Ada” sent messages to thousands of voters that said:

Hey Neighbor,

As we’ve been out sharing our “Yes For West Ada” levy message, there seems to be some confusion about the levy’s impact on taxes.

Let us be clear:

If this levy passes, taxes are projected to go down steadily over the next 10 years. We’re so happy with the conservative approach West Ada has taken.

Text message received 5/11/23

While technically true — the new $500 million plant levy, which would raise most homeowners’ property taxes by hundreds of dollars a year, is less than the expiring bond, this is disingenuous at best. Calling a tax hike a tax cut is more fitting for stereotypical used car salesmen than for public officials and their advocates.

Before voters commit to hundreds of dollars in annual taxes, they deserve to hear the complete story. They deserve access to transparent information regarding how much money is being spent and how it will be utilized. They deserve to be presented with alternatives to the existing system rather than facing relentless demands to fund a system that has fallen short.

Voters deserve accountability for their hard-earned money, not excuses, intimidation, and misleading campaigns.

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