LUNA BUDGET REQUEST AMBITIOUS

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The Press-Tribune opines:  When the Great Recession hit in 2007, Idaho lawmakers made significant cuts to state spending on public schools. But legislators promised that, when things got better, restoring that funding would be top priority.

Now Idaho Schools Superintendent Tom Luna isn’t being bashful about taking them up on that promise. While his request for a nearly 6 percent spending increase for 2014-2015 may be a bit on the overly optimistic side, you have to appreciate his push to increase pay for hard-working teachers, and given the economy, he should get at least some of what he’s asking for.

When the economy tanked five years ago, it didn’t mess around. Despite the fact that Idaho had some rainy-day funds to cushion the blow and the state also got some extra education money from the controversial American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (also known as “The Stimulus”), Idaho cut $82.5 million from the schools budget since 2007. According to a study released by the Center on Budget Policy Priorities and published by Idaho Education News:

n Idaho’s per-pupil spending has fallen almost 16 percent since 2007. Only four states made deeper cuts: Oklahoma, Alabama, Arizona and Kansas.

n Idaho is spending $930 less per student than it did in 2007.

We are far from being alone when it comes to cutting education spending. At least 34 other states also have. And while the Gem State finally reversed the trend of cuts with an increase of $28.6 million this year, that extra money essentially maintained pace with growth in enrollment and inflation.

Luna is far more ambitious now. He’s calling for a $77 million increase in public school funding next year, which would bring the tally from $1.308 billion this year to about $1.4 billion.

His proposal closely mirrors the details recommended by Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education — a five-year phased plan that ties significant increases in teacher pay to performance and accountability. If the plan is fully phased in, starting teacher pay would increase from its current $31,000 to $40,000 per year in six years. Veteran teachers could be boosted to tiers of $50,000 and $60,000.

The price tag for the teacher compensation increases alone would exceed $250 million in six years. Also included in Luna’s proposed budget are $5 million for the dual credit program for high school students, $12.2 million for professional development and $2.75 million for the development of school safety programs. Another $16.5 million would go to partially restore the $82.5 million cut from the budget.

The state’s economy has improved, but to say it’s back to pre-recession levels is optimistic at best. The federal government shutdown and showdown over the spiraling national debt have employers and investors nervous, and the effects of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) hover over the nation as a  huge, undetermined X-factor.

When asked whether he thought a traditionally conservative Legislature would sign on to such a spending increase in these times, despite the fact that the state’s overall economy has steadily improved, Luna said he did. He said the fact that the teacher raises would be tied to their performance would make it a palatable sell to lawmakers.

So far the reaction from Otter and key budget writers has been fairly positive. January is still a few months away, although preliminary discussions on budget setting often begin before that, which is why it was wise for Luna to release his proposal early.

There’s a good chance conservative, cautious lawmakers won’t give the state’s public schools chief all he’s asking for. But odds are he’ll probably get at least some of it.  And you can’t fault him for asking. For all the work they do, good, productive teachers deserve more than $31,000 a year.

Despite the bluster from some union representatives who tried to portray him as a “teacher hater” who relished the opportunity to cut educator pay and give Idaho kids the shaft, Luna has always been serious about giving teachers bigger paychecks to lure and keep good ones here in Idaho. And given a stronger state economy and backing from the governor’s education task force, that may finally be possible. At least to some extent.

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