Kindergarten through 12th grade education accounts for nearly 48 percent of the overall general fund in Idaho—add in the public universities and colleges around the state, and the education budget swells to nearly 63 percent. One of the first (and maybe most important) bits of business for the powerful Idaho Legislature budget-writing committee happens during what is known as Education Week, when school administrators appear before the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee to ask for funding.
However, before lawmakers could even begin their number-crunching efforts, they were hit with a one-two punch of sobering statistics. To begin, the Boise State University annual Idaho Public Policy Survey revealed 62 percent of Idahoans rated the state K-12 system poor or fair, and 66 percent said the state was doing a poor or fair job of preparing students for higher education.
"Public education remains both the top policy priority for Idahoans as well as an ongoing area of concern," concluded the study.
On Jan. 22, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra delivered another depressing report to JFAC, this one authored by the Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest, revealing a widening gap of haves and have-nots, with disarming news for schools in Idaho's rural or poverty-stricken regions.
"We've heard the stories, but now we have the evidence," Ybarra said.
The report shows one in five Idaho teachers are not returning to their schools in the next year. High-poverty and low-performing schools, particularly those in south central Idaho—Twin Falls and much of the Magic Valley—had even higher percentages of teachers not returning.
Making matters worse, the study revealed the Gem State teaching workforce is becoming less experienced, especially in rural, low-performing and high-poverty schools. Many of those same schools are struggling to keep up with the increasing enrollment of English-learning students: 23 percent of schools with at least 20 English learner students did not have an English language development teacher.
"The more we understand our challenges, the better we can address them," said Ybarra as she prepared for a weeklong session with the legislative budget writers.