If you live in Boise and you have kids, congratulations.
You're living in a school district that boasts diversity: More than 92 languages are spoken in our classrooms. You're living in a school district that boasts academic success: A Washington Post study ranked four Boise high schools among the top 9 percent in the United States. You're living in a school district that receives adequate funding: Voters regularly approve bond levies.
Paradoxically, because you live in Idaho, you also have our deepest sympathy: The Gem State ranks last in the nation in the amount of money it invests per student. And while the Idaho Legislature might remind us it actually increased K-12 spending for the 2013-2014 school year by 2.3 percent, lawmakers may forget to add they were barely keeping pace with inflation. In fact, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that, adjusted for inflation, Idaho's per-pupil spending has dipped 15.9 percent since the Great Recession. Additionally, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems ranks Idaho 50th in the nation for the percentage of high school seniors who attend a two- or four-year college or university.
In 2012, Jay Mathews, an education columnist for The Washington Post, told Boise Weekly that, considering the sad state of affairs when it comes to funding Idaho public schools, Boiseans may not realize how lucky they are.
"Overall, the Mountain West has been a disappointment," said Mathews, who has been studying educational trends since the 1990s. "Idaho's record is poor, with the exception of Boise with all four its high schools on the [best] list. This is rare for any district of its size nationally but for Idaho and the Mountain West, it's phenomenal."
So when the Boise School District saw an ever-increasing gap between what it was receiving from the Idaho Legislature and what administrators said they needed to keep standards high, they hit the bricks. In 2012, a grassroots effort, which was led by parents, organized an unprecedented campaign, with more than 400 volunteers going door to door, telling the story. They told how 57 percent of Boise's high school graduates attend college compared to 46 percent statewide; how 83 percent of Boise's graduates advance from freshman to sophomore year in college (higher than any other state in the country); and how the district refused to increase class sizes or make cuts to art, athletics or music programs. Ultimately, more than 20,000 Boise voters said "yes" to higher taxes for schools in the 2012 levy election, while around 8,000 said "no."
Meanwhile, school levies have been repeatedly defeated across Idaho, particularly in rural districts, where many homeowners say they can't shoulder the extra burden. And with a widening gap of spending-per-student in different Idaho school districts, Gem State K-12 public education has increasingly become a system of haves and have-nots.
"We just can't continue to operate at these levels," Mike Ferguson, former Idaho chief economist and recently-retired director of the Idaho Center on Fiscal Policy, told Boise Weekly in early 2013.
Ferguson pointed to the 30-to-1 gap between property tax values in the McCall-Donnelly School District compared to homeowners in the Snake River School District. Simply put, the exact same school levy of 1 percent would generate $4,700 per student in a McCall school while raising only $153 per student in Snake River.
And for those who argue that more comes out of their pocketbook to fund public schools, the Idaho Center for Public Policy reminds us that during the 1980s and 1990s, we spent 4.4 percent of our personal income on K-12 education but since 2000, it's closer to 3.4 percent—a full percentage point drop in the amount of our resources devoted to public schools.
Who's Doing the Math?
Having inadequate funding for Idaho's public schools is one thing. But abusing the public's trust by mismanaging those funds takes the trouble to a whole new level. Ask anyone in Nampa, a school district still living with a fair amount of scar tissue, following one of the worst scandals in recent memory.
"It just seemed, week after week, it was like getting punched in the face because there was another crisis," Pete Koehler told BW in the fall of 2013.
Koehler should know. After serving decades as a teacher and principal in the Nampa district, the soft-spoken man had his eye on retirement when he got a call, asking him to step up and become Nampa School District's interim superintendent—and to clean up somebody else's mess. What a mess it was.