Guest column: Idaho needs new school funding formula

Now is the time for Idaho to make the move toward a new school funding formula, writes Terry Ryan.

Idaho’s current K-12 public-school funding formula is archaic. It was adopted in 1994, and needs an upgrade to better serve the needs of our students today and into the future. Fortunately, Idaho’s lawmakers understand the challenge and seem poised to make necessary improvements. Their efforts to modernize school funding should be supported and encouraged by parents, taxpayers and everyone interested in the future of Idaho and its children.

According to the Education Commission of the States the “current funding formula did not contemplate a variety of different learning modalities, the increasing mobility of students and the state’s move toward mastery-based education.”

The models of education and learning have changed significantly over the last 25 years, but so too have the demographics of Idaho’s students. In the fall of 1994 there were about 230,000 K-12 students enrolled in Idaho’s public schools. In 2016 Idaho’s K-12 enrollment topped 300,000, and the National Center for Education Statistics predicts 325,000 students by 2022.

Population and household projections from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that Idaho’s school age population is becoming increasingly urban, more racially diverse, and increasingly from lower income households. Between 2000 and 2014, the state’s Hispanic population grew by 93 percent, while Idaho’s overall population expanded by only 26 percent. More Idaho children are in poverty. In 2008 16 percent of the state’s children lived in poverty, while that number grew to 19 percent in 2014.

A lot has changed since 1994, and this change is accelerating. It is past time for Idaho to craft a school funding formula that not only better meets the needs of today’s students, but is nimble enough to meet the needs of their children.

In September, Idaho’s “Public School Funding Formula Committee” (select lawmakers, state board representation, and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra) heard from school finance expert Marguerite Roza on ways the Gem State can modernize its funding formula. Roza demonstrated how the current formula fuels inequity across schools, limits flexibility for educators, impedes innovation within schools, inhibits local accountability for results, and is overly complicated and lacks transparency.

There is support for the basic principles behind student-based funding among the state’s educators. In late 2016 the Idaho State Board of Education surveyed Idaho’s public school educators, administrators and school board members. More than 87 percent of respondents favored “giving schools more flexibility to decide how to spend their money,” while the same overwhelming percentage favored “providing extra funding to schools with children living in poverty or having special needs.”

Because of the political and technical challenges of implementing a new funding formula. Idaho’s move towards a student-based funding system cannot be implemented overnight. But, the state’s lawmakers and policy makers are right to start addressing the toughest issues like how to set weights for different student needs, and how to transition to a new approach. The time for action is now.

Terry Ryan is CEO of the Boise-based education nonprofit Bluum and the Idaho Charter School Network.