With the economy starting to turn around, the state will have more money available to restore programs that took massive cuts in recent years -- especially for education.
It's not going to be a windfall, but we strongly urge the legislature to put as much of the extra money available as is possible into the public school education fund.
What we're worried about will be continued efforts to drain money from that fund away from public schools.
You'll see efforts to create more charter schools, which all too often look like publicly funded private schools, and voucher programs for the very few (and often unaccredited) private schools in the state.
Under the Luna Plan you'll see money diverted from local school districts to on-line class providers, many out of state. That's supposed to save on the number of teachers needed, but somebody still has to be in the room where the students are taking the on-line classes to make sure they are on task, so it's less of a savings than it looks.
Over the last two years the legislature has made it clear they really aren't thrilled with public schools, don't like teachers and don't really care about students, despite the oh-so-sweet name of the law that slaughtered public education -- Students Come First. Oh, the politicians talk the talk every election cycle, but when push comes to shove, they don't walk the walk.
Time and time again studies show that the most important factor in student performance is a low student-to-teacher ratio. High-cost private schools and the state-coddled charter schools tend to get that. But the legislature's moves for public schools have driven class sizes up all over the state, not just locally. You can't cut 800 teachers in the state and not have that happen. Just try and control a room of 28-29 seventh-grade students and then see how much teaching you can accomplish.
And for all the talk about how much more students need to learn (and they do), the state is rushing to get them out of school as fast as possible so they don't have to pay for them. The state minimum credits for graduation mean a student can easily graduate in three years (if it weren't for the fact some required classes aren't offered until their senior year -- something the kids can get around with the on-line classes). In fact, the state now has incentive programs for early graduation -- for those who are going on to college. Apparently, 17 is the new 18 for entering the world.
This legislature is famous for talking about anti-big government and local control. Here's an example of the local control they've given local school districts:
* They took away the local property tax for operations and maintenance, promising to replace it (which they didn't) with state funding -- and all the strings that came with that. Local school boards couldn't adjust to meet the specific demands and local needs of their patrons. The state is now calling the shots.
* Then, when the state cut funding, they told the districts they had many local choices -- cut teachers, cut teacher salaries, raise classroom sizes or cut enrichment programs. What great choices. If you were on the school board wouldn't you feel like you had local control?
That's why school districts all around the state went for emergency supplemental levies. Little used before the infamous Students Come First law, almost every school district in Idaho had to go begging to the voters to approve the special property tax levy they needed if, in their opinion, they were going to be able to provide their students with a basic, quality education. The legislators could brag all they wanted about not raising taxes -- they forced the local school districts to do it for them.
Fortunately, the average voter seemed smarter than the average legislator. They saw what needed to be done, bit the bullet and approved the extra tax levies.
But that doesn't mean they'll always do it -- nor should they be forced to do so.
The legislature needs to take the extra money it's getting from the upturn in the economy and pour it back into education. Even if they used all the extra money for education, it wouldn't restore it to the levels it was at in 2009. But they need to start pushing things that way.
They need to recognize that teachers are valued members of local communities and they need to be supported at the state level with the same fervor that voters have shown repeatedly that they have for them at the local level.
They need to take measures that will directly reduce class sizes, not increase them. They need to quit trying to tear down public education and work to build it up -- with a little more foresight than the Students Come First law that had to be heavily modified by the state board of education to make it work at all.
This is an election year, and the litmus test for any legislator should be their degree of support for public education. Not what they say on the campaign trail -- but their actual votes.
Watch them closely. Ride them hard. Public schools shouldn't have to resort to selling pencils on street corners to make sure our children get a quality education.