This is where Reclaim Idaho thinks tuition money should be spent

Volunteers across Idaho worked for more than a year to get an initiative on the November ballot that would have provided millions of dollars for Idaho education through a tax on the wealthy and corporations.

But after the Legislature passed a bill earlier this year that earmarked $410 million for education and instead used sales tax revenue, the group took the initiative off the ballot and focused on a new goal: ensuring money for urgent public school needs.

Luke Mayville, co-founder of Reclaim Idaho — the grassroots group responsible for getting the education initiative on the November ballot — said securing better pay and benefits for teachers and classified staff is a top priority. The group’s newsletter initiative focuses on the challenges school districts face in competing for qualified teachers and support staff.

“So whether it’s improving health insurance benefits and raising wages,” Mayville told the Idaho Statesman, “we need to do everything we can to make our school districts competitive.”

Idaho’s turnaround has taken credit for getting lawmakers to make historic investments in Idaho schools, saying it must now do everything possible to hold lawmakers accountable.

The money will be allocated to the bill passed by the Legislature in next year’s session. Under the bill, $330 million would go toward K-12 education and $80 million would go toward high-need vocational training.

Mayville said the organization is developing its strategy for the coming months.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure people across the state are speaking up,” he said. “Thousands of people have joined our education action campaign. And we know that tens of thousands more are watching education funding very closely.”

Volunteers highlight critical needs

Volunteers with Reclaim Idaho said they hope the funds go toward the most important needs of students and teachers in the classroom.

Lori Wright, a Reclaim Idaho team leader, said she knocked on doors in Twin Falls and Emmett and heard about how both communities are struggling to keep teachers. He said one of the best ways to retain and attract teachers is to pay them more.

Sam Sandmayer, another Reclaim Idaho volunteer, said he would like to see the money go to Reclaim Idaho’s immediate classroom needs included in the initiative, such as vocational education, special education, music and art programs and school counselors.

Sandmayer said he expects the organization’s ballot initiative would have passed had it appeared on the November ballot.

To put the initiative before voters, volunteers needed to collect signatures from 6% of registered voters in at least 18 legislative districts and 6% of voters statewide. The group collected more than 100,000 signatures from every county in the state.

The Legislature needs to focus on the needs presented in the initiative, Sandmayer said, because “the people of Idaho are what they want the money spent on.”

Volunteers said they are concerned that lawmakers want to earmark some of the money for a voucher that could take money away from public schools.

Republican lawmakers have introduced similar bills in previous years. Last session, Idaho lawmakers repealed a bill that would have created scholarship accounts that families could use for tuition and fees for students at private high schools. Opponents from education groups told lawmakers it would hurt public schools and was not a constitutional use of public dollars.

“There is a faction of the Legislature that is really against public education, and I believe they are a minority,” Sandmire said. “But the rest of the Legislature needs to be strong and make sure they’re not pressured to direct a dime of that money to anything other than public schools.”

Teacher salaries, school facilities are top priorities

The Idaho School Boards Association won’t announce its legislative platform until November. But Quinn Perry, the association’s deputy director, told the Statesman that the two main demands from members are for wages for classified workers, which include food service workers and bus drivers and school facilities.

He said the organization also advocates for flexibility with the funds so that school districts can use them to meet their needs.

Mike Journey, a spokesman for the Idaho Education Association, said the funding is “much needed” and the group will continue to work with lawmakers to keep pace.

“(We) have a long way to go to get to the point where we can make it a properly funded system,” he told the Statesman.

The association’s main priorities include recruiting and retaining teachers to improve classroom learning outcomes. That includes better pay and benefits and more mental health resources for students, such as additional counselors, Jorney said.

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a state of emergency in children’s mental health and encouraged lawmakers to do more. Research from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found an increase in mental health-related emergency department visits among children and adolescents.

“If a student is in crisis and needs help, our teachers need someone to help them with that,” Jorney said.

The latest issue involves addressing some of the challenges schools face in maintaining their aging facilities as many struggle to pass bonds and payments.

Concerns arise over public school funding

School districts across the state are struggling to fill jobs — and some are having to fill open positions with people who don’t have the proper training.

Senator Jenny Ward-Engelking, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said. funding can be directed to help districts recruit and retain staff. He also mentioned the state’s old school facilities, many of which have passed their lifespan.

Another option, she said, is to provide enough funding to schools so that districts can purchase the state’s health insurance plan. The Legislature last year appropriated funds to help schools reduce the cost of health insurance for their employees, but did not give districts enough money to buy into the state’s plan. Ward-Engelking estimated that could cost an additional $80 million to $100 million.

If lawmakers try to divert additional funding from public schools, Ward-Engelking said, it could disenfranchise students in rural areas of the state who don’t have private schools in their areas and take money away from already stretched public schools.

“There’s a certain group … for privatizing education and making it more affordable for the elite than for every Idahoan,” he said. “I think that before we think about funding private or religious schools, we need to look at what we haven’t achieved with our public schools.”

This story was originally published October 19, 2022 at 4:00 AM.

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