Can anyone remember a time when Idaho’s K-12 education establishment wasn’t asking for more money from the Legislature? I can’t.
By more money, I mean more than other agencies generally receive, more than inflation and enrollment growth, and more than the Legislature appropriates in any given year.
Congress and the current and former president have showered money on K-12 education during the COVID-19 pandemic and in Idaho too.
For the coming fiscal year (FY22), Idaho’s K-12 public education will receive $3.1 billion in state and federal funds, not including local funds provided by property taxes. That is up about 33% or $768 million from the $2.3 billion originally appropriated for the current fiscal year.
That means education spending will jump by one-third this next fiscal year. That is a whopping increase by any measure. About $697 million of this increase is provided by the federal government. The critical question: Will student outcomes improve?
If results don’t improve with this massive infusion of money, why should Idaho taxpayers continue to provide large increases in education funding after the Covid money runs out? Results must matter.
If we take a step back and review the education funding provided by the Legislature from FY12 to FY22, we see that it has increased 99%, nearly doubling. Adjusting for inflation, spending is up 69% in the past decade. During that same time period, enrollment has increased about 13%, based on current estimates for FY22. So the inflation adjusted dollars per student is up about 50% in the last decade.
This trendline of education spending increases is not matched by results in student attainment. The myriad voices in the Idaho education policy space don’t agree on much, but they don’t dispute that reading and math scores have not improved – results are generally flat or decreasing in recent years.
So where does this leave us? A reasonable person might ask a simple question: If funding has doubled yet there’s no improvement, are taxpayers getting an appropriate return on their investment?
For the last decade, the answer is a clear no.
Expect apologists to blame COVID-19 or something other than the current education model. And they might complain that much of this one-time money may not continue.
But there is always some excuse. A frank discussion of alternatives to the current K-12 model must be part of the conversation.
The Legislative Services Office lists 19 eligible uses of the federal pandemic relief. Purposes include learning losses due to the pandemic — a catch-all phrase meant to address time spent away from studying due to Covid — staff training and development, purchasing education technology, and “other activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in local education agencies and continuing to employ existing staff of the local education agencies.”
So there is tremendous flexibility built into this extra money, too. Absent from this long list is any expectation that educational attainment will improve. A few years from now when the money has been spent, can we expect an improvement in math and reading results? Don’t bet on it.