Volunteers across Idaho have spent more than a year pushing for an initiative for the November election that would have allocated millions of dollars to education in Idaho through taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
But after the Legislature passed legislation earlier this year that earmarked $410 million for education and used sales tax revenues instead, the group pulled the initiative off the ballot and turned to a new goal: making sure the money goes to urgent needs used in public schools.
Luke Mayville, the co-founder of Reclaim Idaho — the grassroots group responsible for getting an education initiative in November’s vote — said ensuring better pay and benefits for teachers and classified staff is a top priority. The group’s voting initiative focused on the challenges school districts face when competing for qualified teachers and support staff.
“Whether it’s improving health insurance benefits or increasing wages,” Mayville told the Idaho Statesman, “we must do everything we can to make our school districts more competitive.”
Reclaim Idaho took credit for urging lawmakers to make the historic investment in Idaho schools and said it must do what it can now to hold the legislature accountable.
The money included in the bill passed by the Legislature will be allocated during next year’s session. According to the bill, $330 million will go to K-12 education and $80 million to education for in-demand careers.
Mayville said the organization is developing its strategy for the coming months.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure people are speaking up across the state,” he said. “Thousands of people participated in our quality education promotion campaign. And we know that tens of thousands are watching the issue of funding for education very closely.”
Volunteers indicate essential needs
Reclaim Idaho volunteers said they hoped the funds would go to the most important needs of students and teachers in the classroom.
Lori Wright, a Reclaim Idaho team leader, said she’s knocked on doors in Twin Falls and Emmett and heard about how both communities are struggling to retain teachers. One of the best ways to retain and attract teachers is to pay them more, she said.
Sam Sandmire, another Reclaim Idaho volunteer, said she’d like to see the money go towards urgent needs in the classrooms that Reclaim Idaho has placed in the initiative, such as: B. Vocational technical education, special education, music and arts programs and school counselors.
Sandmire said she believed the organization’s ballot initiative would have been accepted had it appeared in the November election.
To introduce the initiative to voters, volunteers had to collect signatures from 6% of registered voters in at least 18 legislative districts and 6% of voters across the state. The group collected more than 100,000 signatures from all counties in the state.
The Legislature should pay attention to the needs outlined in the initiative, Sandmire said, because “that’s what the people of Idaho want the money to be spent on.”
Volunteers said they are concerned lawmakers want some of the money to go towards a coupon bill that could take money away from public schools.
Republican lawmakers have proposed similar bills in recent years. In the last session, Idaho lawmakers narrowly defeated a bill that would have created stipend accounts that families could use to pay for students’ tuition and fees in private elementary schools. Opponents of education groups told lawmakers it would hurt public schools and was not a constitutional use of state dollars.
“There’s a faction in the legislature that’s actually against public education, and I think they’re the minority,” Sandmire said. “But the rest of the Legislature needs to stay strong and make sure they’re not being pressured to divert a dime of that money to anything other than public schools.”
Teacher salaries, school facilities top priority
The Idaho School Boards Association doesn’t release its legislative platform until November. But Quinn Perry, deputy director of the association, told the statesman the two most important needs of members are focused on paying classified staff, which includes catering workers and bus drivers, as well as school facilities.
The organization also advocates flexibility in funding so school districts can use it for their own needs, she said.
Mike Journee, spokesman for the Idaho Education Association, said the funding is “urgently needed” and the group will continue to work with lawmakers to keep the momentum going.
“[We]still have a long way to go to get to a point where we can even begin to think of it as a properly funded system,” he told the Statesman.
Among the association’s top priorities is attracting and retaining educators to improve educational outcomes in the classroom. Journee said this includes better salaries and benefits, as well as more mental health resources for students – such as additional counselors.
Over the past year, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association have declared a child mental health emergency and encouraged lawmakers to do more. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found an increase in emergency room visits related to mental health in children and adolescents.
“When a student is in crisis and needs help, our educators need someone to lean on to help them through it,” Journee said.
The latest issue looks at some of the challenges schools face to sustain their aging facilities as many struggle to pass bonds and dues.
Concerns arise about the defunding of public schools
School districts across the state are struggling to fill staffing positions — and some are having to fill vacancies with people who don’t have the proper education.
said Democratic Senator Janie Ward-Engelking, a member of the Senate Education Committee Funding could be used to help districts attract and retain employees. She also mentioned the state’s aging school facilities, many of which have outlived their useful lives.
Another option, she said, is to provide schools with enough funds for districts to pay into state health insurance. The Legislature allocated funds last year to help schools reduce health insurance costs for their employees, but didn’t give districts enough money to buy into the state’s plan. Ward-Engelking estimated this could cost an additional $80 million to $100 million.
If lawmakers try to divert the extra funding from public schools, Ward-Engelking says it could disenfranchise the state’s rural students who don’t have private schools in their areas and drain money from already-overburdened public schools.
“There is a push by a certain group … to privatize education and make it more accessible to the elite than to any individual Idahoan,” she said. “I think we need to look at what we haven’t achieved with our public schools before we even think about funding private or religious schools.”