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Is it time to modernize Idaho’s school funding model?

Schools may be on summer break but the education funding debate in Idaho continues to heat up. After the governor and legislature increased school funding by $330 million this year, confusion surrounding how the funds would be distributed has re-started the debate about basing distributions on attendance versus enrollment and whether other changes are needed to the state’s K-12 funding model.

As reported by the Idaho Statesman:

“This year, the Legislature approved Little’s recommendation to infuse $145 million in the career ladder, the state’s uniform teacher salary system. But school districts often hire more teachers than the state provides funding for, and school finance officers have some discretion to distribute the funds. That means teacher raises will look different in each district.

An added wrinkle is the upcoming reversion to attendance-based school funding. Idaho is among a handful of states that fund schools based on attendance. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the Idaho State Board of Education enacted a temporary rule allowing enrollment-based funding, which allowed schools to collect state money based on how many students were enrolled — not on how many attended.

The temporary rule stabilized school budgets as attendance dropped during the pandemic, but it’s expiring at the end of this month.”

Although some claim that by using attendance-based funding again state officials are breaking a “promise” for the increased education funding, all the dollars allocated this session will remain available for education spending, regardless of how distributed.

I confirmed this fact with Jared Tatro, Deputy Division Manager of Budget & Policy Analysis for the Idaho Legislative Services Office:

“Any money in excess of the appropriation that was not distributed to schools is deposited in to the public education stabilization fund (PESF). Now PESF is full (at its statutory cap of 8.334% of the state funding appropriated to schools), which means it will be deposited into the Bond Levy Equalization Fund. Bottom line, the money appropriated for schools will stay with schools in one form or another.” See Idaho Code 33-907

According to the Education Commission of the States, Idaho is one of just six states that currently uses attendance-based funding.

school funding

Here is a comparison of how Western states determine school funding (attendance-based bolded):

There are good arguments for both funding models. Enrollment-based funding advocates say it helps provide more predictability for traditional schools and charter schools to make budget decisions. Attendance-based funding supporters say it helps incentivize school officials to ensure chronic absenteeism doesn’t occur.

This isn’t a new debate for Idaho.

As reported by Idaho Statesman:

“In 2022, the Legislature passed a bill that would have continued enrollment-based funding through the upcoming school year, but Little vetoed it.

‘Gov. Little believes education should be in-person and student-focused in order to improve student outcomes,’ Little’s spokesperson, Madison Hardy, told the Idaho Statesman by email. ‘We will continue to monitor efforts to improve school attendance to pre-pandemic levels and will make any necessary adjustments in collaboration with the Legislature, education leaders and stakeholders.’”

I reached out to state officials for their thoughts on what should happen next.

State Superintendent Debbie Critchfield told me:

“There are valid reasons to prefer enrollment or attendance and both models have their supporters. I think we all agree that what we have isn’t meeting expectations. I’ve started work this summer to convene a group of policymakers and education stakeholders to work towards modernizing school funding. I believe we can provide districts the budgeting consistency they’re looking for while addressing our focus of having kids in school.”

Rep. Wendy Horman confirmed that a collaborative effort to update Idaho’s K-12 funding model is occurring:

“It is time to modernize Idaho’s school funding model. I am working on a bill with Sen. Lori Den Hartog and education stakeholders with these guiding principles: Modernize Idaho’s public school funding formula to one that incentivizes strategic and effective spending driven by local decision-making in order to accelerate student achievement. The model shall: 1. Be easy to understand, transparent, flexible, and sustainable; 2. Be student-centered; 3. Retain certain categorial funding; and 4. Shift away from seat time to course completion.”

No matter which direction the future K-12 funding debate heads, the increased education spending allocated this year according to the Idaho Legislative Services Office will stay within the system: “Bottom line, the money appropriated for schools will stay with schools in one form or another.”

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