Idaho spends less on each of its public school students than any other state in the nation.

Idaho is a relatively low-income state (in no small part because our workforce has relatively low levels of educational achievement), so it’s not entirely surprising that we wouldn’t be ranked near the top of the pile. But to be ranked dead last represents a terrible public policy failure. We haven’t just slipped a little bit in the past 15 years. We’ve plummeted. Idaho now spends 8% less per student than second-to-last Utah and 38% less than Virginia, the median state.

In 2005, before then-Gov. Jim Risch’s tax shift that, as widely predicted, devastated education funding, Idaho ranked 43rd. If we wanted to simply restore real education funding to pre-Risch-shift levels, we would need to increase education funding by 16% immediately. But the general level of spending in states throughout the nation has outpaced inflation as classroom technology and other investments have become necessary for modern education. If Idaho wanted to regain its position of 43rd, that would require a one-year funding increase of 33%.

The gap between funding for the Idaho education system and the need is massive. That has driven a heavy reliance on supplemental levies, meant to be used for special projects, to fund basic operations. That is a recipe for ever-greater inequality between relatively urban and wealthy school districts, where a property tax increase to fund schools is more palatable, and poorer, more rural districts where supplemental levies are beginning to fail.

Some legislators have pushed valiantly to increase school funding through initiatives like the Career Ladder, which focused on the problem of recruiting and retaining skilled teachers, one of the most vital assets for a successful public education system.

But it’s clear these efforts are grossly insufficient.

Idaho continues to slip downward rather than making progress. Between the 2017-18 school year and the 2018-19 school year, per-pupil spending in Idaho fell at the third-fastest rate in the nation.

Idaho students deserve better than this. The Legislature has had years to fix it, but it has not proven equal to the task. Does this scenario sound familiar? It should. The problem is nearly identical to the situation with Medicaid expansion, which Idaho lawmakers punted on for years until the people of Idaho did the job for them. The same people who led the charge to solve that problem are now working to fix Idaho’s education funding shortfall.

After responsibly pausing signature collection during the pandemic, Reclaim Idaho has restarted its effort to gather signatures for a ballot initiative to make serious progress on education funding.

Reasonable people can disagree about how best to begin digging our way out of the education funding hole. Some could prefer that taxes be more broadly distributed than Reclaim Idaho has proposed (the initiative would only raise taxes on individuals making more than $250,000 per year, couples making more than $500,000 and businesses). Some could prefer steeper increases for high-income households.

All reasonable people should agree, however, that the people should be able to vote on adding about $300 million to the education system, given elected officials’ self-evident failure to solve the problem. Reclaim Idaho’s initiative deserves a vote, so voters should investigate signing their petition.

And because lawmakers have been especially hostile to ballot initiatives, extra burden will be placed on voters in rural counties if this effort is going to have a shot. If you live in Clark, Butte or Fremont counties, for example, it’s less likely someone will be able to bring a petition to your door. If you want your child to have a shot at a good education, you’ll have to seek out the petition, and speak to your neighbors about doing the same.

If we won’t look after our children’s—and our state’s—future, who will?

The Post Register (Idaho Falls) originally published this editorial on June 27.

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