Gov. Butch Otter's call for improved funding for Idaho education is definitely a step in the right direction.
Since the economic meltdown in 2008, funding for education has seen some real and serious reductions in funding, forcing local taxpayers to pick up the load.
Ironically, the man most hated by educators, Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, is actually asking for more money than Otter has, and in some ways has suggested a better focus for where that money should be going.
Here, we've become convinced over the years that the one single factor -- that shows up in all studies -- that consistently improves student performance is low student-to-teacher ratios. The fewer kids in a classroom the more a teacher can focus on individual students and help tailor learning to that student's needs.
Bottom line, we need more teachers to improve education. Everything else is window dressing.
Luna's plan provides more funding for teacher salaries, but it is focused on giving raises to existing teachers, which, after years of either no raises or cuts in salary, will almost certainly be greatly appreciated. Otter wants to hold the line on teacher pay and pour it into other programs that he believes will be beneficial to education.
Neither actually are advocating hiring more teachers, and remember, we lost 800 in this state when the Luna Plan first went into effect four years ago (a plan that also forced almost every school district in the state to got to local voters for supplemental levies to help keep the districts' programs running).
Both plans come with a lot of strings to local districts, however, specifically directing how money will be spent, which sort of belies the lip service given to "local control."
But in the end, both are positively liberal, extravagant proposals, shining beacons of light compared to what either man is likely to actually get from a legislature mired in Middle Ages thinking. Based on what we're hearing, you can write off any 3 to 3.9 percent increase in funding. We'd be surprised if the legislature settled for 2 percent, which would be just barely over the national inflation rate of 1.2 percent. And most of that increase will be directed to legislative pet projects, rarely programs local school boards actually want (it's been years, for example, since the state actually had a funding line in the education budget for textbooks).
The legislature has not been a friend of education in the last ten years. In fact, you can trace our "broken" system back to almost exactly the point at which the legislature decided it needed to "fix" education.
Local control has almost completely disappeared. Even though local school boards are more responsive to voters and far better informed of local conditions and needs, the legislature, from its high paternalistic perch, has increasingly taken over the role of specifying how local school districts will spend your tax dollars. School boards are increasingly just caretakers of your tax dollars for education. Their decision-making capabilities have been sharply curtailed by a "big brother" legislature.
We'd actually encourage voters to back Otter, or even better yet, Luna's plans (and those who know our historic attitude toward Luna will be shocked to hear that). But unless our legislators suddenly wake up and start listening to their local school boards and local voters about what is really needed at the local level, Luna, Otter and Idaho education in general will probably not be served well by an Idaho legislature that doesn't understand or believe in public education.
This is an election year. Watch your legislators very closely. How much do they really think Idaho should spend on its students? How much local control do they really support? What programs do they support?
There is no issue in Idaho more vital at this time than determining the future of the education system, and at least in that respect, by restoring that emphasis in his State of the State address, Otter was right on the money.
Now, let's see how the rhetoric of state leaders and legislators turns into reality.
-- Kelly Everitt