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Emilie Ritter Saunders reports a recent report by the non-partisan research organization Center on Budget Policy and Priorities says education cuts in Idaho have been among the deepestin the nation over the last five years.

As StateImpact reported last week, CBPP’s study shows per-student spending in Idaho has dropped 19 percent since 2008. Just three states have cut more.

The Idaho Department of Education takes issue with these figures and spokesperson Melissa McGrath says CBPPs report isn’t an accurate measure.

“The fact is the state hasn’t reduced education funding per student by 19 percent,” McGrath says.

Here’s where it gets complicated.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities applied a standard methodology across all 50 states to compile its report.  One of the report authors, Phil Oliff says they looked at each states’ “major education funding sources” and emergency federal spending — think stimulus dollars — over the last five budget cycles, beginning in 2008.

In Idaho, Oliff says data came directly from the annual Legislative Budget Book.  To calculate how much Idaho spends per-student, CBPP used enrollment numbers from the federal Department of Education.  Those are tallied on the first day of school.

Finally, CBPP adjusted its year-over-year spending calculations for inflation.  Oliff says if Idaho’s Education Department doesn’t adjust for inflation, that’s likely the difference.

The state Education Department maintains per-student spending has dropped nearly 12 percent, but that’s just looking at fiscal years 2008 to 2011.

The director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy Mike Ferguson published a reporton the decline of the state’s share of education spending back in April.  He also was consulted by CBPP on their report.

“Whether it’s 12 percent or 19 percent, it’s still a pretty big decline,” says Ferguson. He says it boils down to a different way of counting the same thing.  Ferguson says adjusting for inflation makes more sense statistically, because it takes into account the change that happens over time in price level.

And when inflation is applied, the percentage decline in education spending will go up.

Ferguson says CBPP’s method can be useful because it looks at all states over time, rather than the year-to-year accounting that happens at the individual state level.  “It’s a consistent comparison across geography,” Ferguson says, “and it’s important to see how Idaho fits in.”

Still, Idaho Department of Education spokesperson McGrath says, “I just don’t think it’s an accurate portrayal of school finance or the money we’ve distributed to public schools, whether that’s in a single year or since 2008.”

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