Sherri Ybarra JFAC 1-23-20

Sherri Ybarra, Idaho state superintendent of schools, addresses the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee at her public school budget hearing on Jan. 23.

BOISE — State schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra told state lawmakers on Thursday that Idaho’s schools are on a “positive, upward trajectory” as she pitched her plan to increase state funding for schools next year by 5.3 percent to $1.99 billion.

“The investments you have made on behalf of Idaho’s citizens are making a difference for our students,” Ybarra told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in her sixth annual budget presentation. As she travels to schools around the state, she said, “I’m incredibly impressed and encouraged by what I see. … It’s visits like these that always remind me of why I became an educator and committed to the work.”

Ybarra decried as “false” reports that Idaho ranks at or near the bottom for its schools, which generally focus on the state’s per-pupil funding levels; those levels have long ranked at or near last among the states. In the most recent U.S. Census figures on per-pupil spending, Idaho ranked ahead of only Utah; Idaho’s per-pupil spending, based on 2017 data, was $7,486, compared to a national average of $12,201.

“In most measures, Idaho students are on a positive, upward trajectory,” Ybarra declared. “We’re ranked fifth in the nation for our students being college and career ready,” she said. “Our scores on NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) and ACT scores that were released in October show that Idaho students continue to score above the national average.” While other states saw their test scores drop this year, she said, Idaho’s held steady.

“So we are definitely not last in the nation, by a long shot,” she told reporters after her presentation.

First- through third-grade reading scores are improving, she said, although fall kindergarten scores were down this year.

She listed other areas of improvement for specific sub-groups of students, and noted, “More Idaho students take dual-credit courses than almost all other states in the nation,” with only Iowa and Indiana ranking higher.

“There is certainly a lot to celebrate and reflect upon in Idaho’s schools,” Ybarra told legislative budget writers, including reaching the fifth year of the state’s career ladder for teachers. “I urge you to stay the course.”

TEACHER SHORTAGE

Idaho’s schools do face challenges, however, including a serious teacher shortage, Ybarra said.

“The teacher shortage in Idaho is very real,” Ybarra said. “Many school districts are forced to ask the state to grant what we call emergency provisional certificates to individuals they want to hire to fill vacancies, especially in areas such as special education and math … areas where we are struggling to see progress in our achievement.”

Last year, she said, 885 alternative authorizations were granted to Idaho schools, “when a professional position can’t be filled with someone who has the required qualifications.”

“Keeping skilled, experienced teachers on the job, ensuring students can read at grade level by third grade and training educators to detect and respond to students’ social and emotional needs are essential to giving Idaho’s children the tools and support they need to succeed in school and beyond,” Ybarra said.

Those priorities are targeted in her budget proposal, which calls for putting another $40 million into the career ladder, focusing this time on veteran teachers; making the state’s substantial investment into early literacy programs, now at $26 million this year, permanent; and adding a new line item of $1 million to train teachers to deal with trauma and other social/emotional needs that children bring with them to the classroom, including how to de-escalate unsafe situations.

All three priorities match Gov. Brad Little’s budget proposals, except that Little proposed $30 million for the career ladder. Ybarra said her $40 million figure was just a “placeholder,” developed three months before the governor’s school improvement task force, on which she served, approved its final recommendations.

Overall, Little recommended a 4.1 percent increase in public school funding next year to $1.976 billion in state general funds.

Ybarra also requested additional discretionary funding for school districts, some of which would be targeted toward health insurance costs; and a $500,000 boost to her “mastery-based education” initiative, which works with selected schools to advance students based on their mastery of the material, rather than time spent in class. Neither was included in Little’s proposed budget.

Lawmakers had lots of questions for Ybarra and for the governor’s budget staff; JFAC Co-Chair Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, thanked Ybarra, saying, “That was a lot. Lots of numbers, lots of facts and figures — which is good for this committee, because this is a numbers committee.”

After holding budget hearings on major state agency budgets, the joint committee will begin voting on setting agency budgets in mid-February.