Printed on: December 19, 2012

Idaho's constitutional copout

Idaho's Legislature has a constitutional obligation "to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools." That's not happening. The Idaho Supreme Court said so in 2005. Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter admitted as much this month. And yet, as depicted in the recent Post Register series on school funding, policymakers appear content to, as Otter said, be "doing the best job that we can."

That might be an interesting discussion point if it were true. It's not. In an analysis of K-12 funding from 1980-2013, Idaho's former chief economist, Mike Ferguson, detailed the Legislature's waning support for public schools.

Can they really claim to be "doing the best job that we can" when twice in the last 12 years legislators have cut income taxes for high earners while at the same time reducing that percentage of the state budget earmarked for public schools? When they took school funding off the stable property tax and made it overly reliant upon the volatile sales tax? When, because of that shift, lawmakers created a dependence on supplemental property tax levies, which exacerbates the disparities between Idaho's richest and poorest school districts? When, instead of looking to backfill the budget cuts of the last three years, talk heading into this legislative session is focused on cutting taxes by hundreds of millions for the business lobby? Can Idaho's lawmakers really say they are "doing the best job that we can" when they have overseen a 23 percent decline in public school funding as a percentage of the state's personal income, a number Ferguson places at $550 million annually?

Not that "doing the best job that we can" is even relevant. The Constitution doesn't say legislators "may" give every kid an equal shot at a quality education. It doesn't instruct them to do their best. It says "shall." Not much wiggle room in "shall."

The first step ought to be figuring out what it means to provide a "general, uniform and thorough system of free public schools." Some states have conducted "adequacy studies" to help them through this quagmire.

It will be difficult, perhaps even impossible, to say exactly what compliance looks like. But we know what being out of compliance with our Constitution means: administrators talking openly about bankruptcy and another round of funding lawsuits; four-day school weeks; kids herded into crumbling, unsafe buildings; 30 students in a class; aging textbooks, etc.

Otter is contemplating a task force to look at education reform in the wake of the electoral drubbing of State Superintendent Tom Luna's reforms. Why not ask these stakeholders to define what our constitutional mandate entails? At least that's doing something. Shrugging your shoulders and telling citizens we're "doing the best job that we can" isn't leadership.

It's a copout.

Corey Taule