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Betsy Russell reports Idaho’s former longtime chief state economist, Mike Ferguson, released a 20-page report today on public school funding that reaches a series of startling conclusions, including that Idaho’s current school funding system may be violating two key provisions of the state constitution.

“Actions that drive local school districts into making dramatic increases in the use of local property tax resources … raise serious doubt that the Legislature is fulfilling its constitutional obligations,” Ferguson wrote. “It is probably not realistic to expect a quick fix. It is reasonable to expect an open and honest discussion of the direction of Idaho’s public school funding, and whether it is living up to the duties and responsibilities handed down by Idaho’s founding fathers. Hopefully this report will contribute to that discussion.”

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he hasn’t yet read the report, but that “I’m always leery of statistics until I’ve had a chance to review them and to substantiate them or compare them with something else. I think if we have a problem with equity in funding, that that needs to be discussed. If there’s a constitutional problem, that needs to be discussed. But I also will affirm a statement I’ve heard many, many times, that throwing money at the public schools does not result in better education.”

Ferguson, who served under five Idaho governors, is now director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan grant-funded organization whose mission is “to provide Idaho citizens and elected officials with fact-based information and analysis they can use to make informed public policy decisions.”

His new report found that public school funding, as a share of state spending, has dropped dramatically since 2000.

And even as state lawmakers, in a 2006 special session, eliminated the key property tax levy for school operations while raising the state’s sales tax by a penny, schools that saw decreasing state funding have turned increasingly to voter-approved property tax levies, which, unlike the levy eliminated in 2006, are no longer “equalized” with state funding and accentuate disparities in wealth among the state’s school districts.

The result: Ferguson raises questions about whether Idaho’s current school funding system may be violating constitutional provisions requiring the Legislature to “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools” and requiring taxes to be imposed uniformly.

More than two-thirds of Idaho’s school districts now have supplemental property tax levies, which are voter-approved local taxes that raise sharply varying amounts from one district to the next, depending on the local tax base. Even after the elimination of the major operations levy in 2006, “Considerable amounts of public school funding are still derived from property taxes, and the relative share is once again increasing,” Ferguson wrote.

Goedde, who was the lead legislative sponsor of Idaho’s controversial “Students Come First” school reform laws last year, acknowledged that those reforms were based on the idea that Idaho had less money for schools, so it would spend what it had differently, including shifting funds from salaries to laptop computers and online learning. “But remember, our economy was much different a year ago,” he said. “This last legislative session we were able to restore some of the funding that had been pulled out.”

Goedde said, “I think the state has an obligation to fund some equitable level of public school education, and I think it’s the option of the local taxpayers to fund anything over that level if it’s their desire.” Local, voter-approved tax levies, he said, “give the community opportunity to buy into programs rather than complain about them.”

The reform laws, which also included implementing a merit-pay bonus program for teachers and eliminating most collective bargaining rights for teachers, are up for a referendum vote in November.

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