Our legislature must decide whether to meet Idaho’s needs 

Can you believe the legislature is back in session this week? My door is open, birds are singing, and the pale green of new leaves fills the horizon. Trays of seeds are sprouting; summer is coming.     

Usually, the legislature has adjourned by early April, but now members are returning to an outsized load of unfinished business.  A record number of bills for April–200–have passed one house and not the other.  

And there’s talk of allowing introduction of a new bill to fund all-day kindergarten. New bills are a rule-breaker at this time, but many are rooting for this one. First grade teachers face a large gap between their highest and lowest students and cannot hope to meet the needs of them all. Kids who start first grade knowing how to hold scissors and recognize letters have a better school experience and develop higher expectations for themselves. 

This bill’s proof that some legislators care about Idaho. Too bad bills to increase the homeowners’ property tax exemption and to end the sales tax on groceries don’t have a chance.

Instead we have HB 322, a bill to lower income taxes by 0.125% for the lowest bracket and up to 0.425% for the highest, with a first-year bonus of $50 or 9% of state taxes paid in 2019, whichever is higher. 

After I attacked that bill costing $390 million–$780 million with a Federal take-back–a reader asked if taxpayers who paid in more than was spent didn’t deserve their money back.   

My answer–I’ll never consider Idaho as having a surplus as long as we’re last in the nation in funding education. We should be demanding we’re above the bottom 10. Our kids need–and deserve–that.  

I once had a brittle wall screen that was mended with duct tape. A student went to pull it down for me, and the bottom tore off in his hand; the screen rolled up with such force that it jumped from the nails, and the heavy metal housing fell on him. And when the district couldn’t afford to replace my bent room key, a janitor had to come open and lock my room each day–and I couldn’t leave for lunch.      

And then, in 2009-2010, the legislature cut the education budget 20% more. 

We’ve become conditioned to accept oversized classes. Only Michigan has a higher average for the number in elementary classrooms. Idaho’s average is six students larger than those in Georgia, Maine, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont–and nearly 10 students larger than our own average for secondary classes. 

Teaching requires listening–if you don’t know why a student doesn’t understand, you can’t help them. More students means less knowledge of each one. And more students means fewer activities and more “sit and face forward’.      

A friend’s recent post on Facebook made it clear that the schools aren’t alone in being neglected.  

“There are critical shortages of staff at the Department of Health and Welfare in child protection.

“There’s a critical increase in abuse cases and severity of cases.

“There’s an increase of abuse resulting in ICU and hospital stays.

 “There’s a lack of beds for substance abuse treatment.  

“There’s a critical shortage of mental health care for adults and children.

“There’s a shortage of social workers and mental health workers in schools.

“There’s a critical shortage of professionals who serve children with disabilities. I assume the same is true for adults with disabilities.”

Federal Covid-19 funds can’t be used for ongoing expenses, but our surplus can. Why aren’t more people angry that Idaho legislators underfund schools and services so they can cut income taxes for the weathy again?      

Idaho kids deserve better

Is anyone else disappointed at Sen. Jim Rice’s latest display of hypocrisy?  

“‘(Schools are) not gonna actually be able to collect impact fees,’ Rice said, ‘because it’s not a statutory change because of the way the Constitution is written.”’ We don’t want to be “embroiled in legal battles” (Idaho Press, Jan. 1, 2021). 

Bit last spring Sen. Rice voted to defy a Federal court order requiring Idaho to allow transgender individuals to change their birth certifications. The resulting lawsuits were expected to exceed $2 million, but Rice was cool with that. “‘Sometimes in the course of exercising legislative authority, the time comes to take an issue and put it through the process’” (IP, Mar 17, 2020).

Sen. Rice isn’t alone in seeing testing Federal laws as more important than funding Idaho education. It’s a time-honored Republican tradition. 

Why else would Idaho spend less per student than any other U.S. state? Taxpayers provided $6,747 per student in 2018-19, just $77 less than the $6,824 provided in 2010-11. 

That’s not even half the national average per student ($14,046). 

Why else would none of the sales tax collected from online sales go to schools–or roads or health and welfare services, for that matter? The legislature restricted its use to an important goal–cutting taxes.   

And now we have legislators claiming that schools can’t receive impact fees from new construction because educating future citizens isn’t a direct benefit to businesses and homeowners like roads or police stations. That kind of thinking explains why Idaho schools are the worst funded in the nation.     

Give property owners some tax relief and let newcomers pay impact fees toward costs for building new schools.   

The legislature has the funds to make a major difference this year. Sen. Wintrow recently pointed out Idaho has $630 million in excess revenue, $600 million in rainy day/reserve funds, $100 million in the internet sales tax fund, and $150 million in federal reimbursements for funds used fighting the pandemic (IP, Dec 28, 2021). 

Now I understand fiscal conservatives hold that this surplus is a one-time phenomenon and shouldn’t be spent for ongoing expenses like employee raises. But tax cuts are also ongoing, and Idaho’s tax rates are middling while its school expenditures are lowest in the nation.

 At some point our representatives have to give up on spending countless hours looking for gimmicks to make good education cheap and accept the fact that you generally get just what you pay for.  

Idaho is paying as little as it can and settling for overcrowded classrooms, burned-out teachers, and kids who know people don’t think they’re worth our support.

After 35 years in the classroom, I believe a student’s motivation is the major factor in how successful he or she is in schools. Students must believe that a good life is possible–many don’t–and school is part of the route there. 

Parents make a major difference, but teachers are also important. 

If teachers are perceived as puppets just going through the required motions, they aren’t taken seriously. It makes a real difference if they believe in helping kids grow, give students as much room for creativity and individuality as possible, and understand that self-discipline and self-confidence are major goals. 

And the larger the class, the harder it is to do this. At some point–for me it was about 28 kids–one has to give up on kids working together on projects they had some input in choosing and resort to ‘face forward and take notes.’

Our kids deserve more.