2019 Reviewed and 2020 Previewed: A Teacher’s Perspective

Levi B Cavener

By Levi B Cavener

The twenties are almost upon us. And while this decade will no doubt be different than the “Roaring 20’s” a century ago, perhaps there are some lessons to learn by looking to the past.

That time period, like today, was defined by the absence of large scale war in our country and the world. Unions were in decline much as they are today. And the economy was on sound footing similar to a decade of continuous GDP growth as of today.

But the end of that decade was marked by Black Tuesday, a stock market crash that ushered in the next decade of economic free-fall and depression that crippled the nation for years. And while one would hope that the United States and Idaho are not on the verge of another recession to rival 2008, the fault lines are becoming visible.

Gov. Brad Little

Tax revenue in the Gem State is down, largely as a result of slower economic growth. Governor Little issued a one percent austerity measure to every state department with the exception of K-12 schools. While the governor’s safety rails for education is admirable, it is entirely within reason to assume that K-12 schools status as a holy cow will be short lived should the economy truly start to quake. Let’s hope that prediction does not prove fruition. 

Idaho has also secured a federal grant to analyze Pre-K feasibility. This is an excellent step in the right direction. However, as I have written before, the price tag associated with even half day Pre-K is a nonstarter for Idaho’s legislature. I will happily eat my hat if I am proven wrong and even a small publicly funded pilot program is generated from the grant’s study.

Idaho overwhelmingly passed Medicaid expansion in a 61% to 39% landslide. Not only will this improve health for households across the state, it will also save the Gem State money. Having access to a primary care physician results in improved health outcomes at a fraction of the price in comparison to extravagant emergency room visits paid by everyone with insurance in the form of increased healthcare costs as well as taxpayers in the form of astronomical bills to our counties’ indignant funds.

The correlation between healthy families and improved education outcomes is clear. As more and more eligible families start to receive the care they have long lacked, we would expect to see fruit also being born in the classroom.

Idaho had its first set of blackbelt Master Educators. My hat goes off to those who were found eligible. Unfortunately, a super-majority of eligible teachers declined to apply due to an overwhelming (and some would argue intentional) set of paperwork hoops. In fact, Idaho’s teacher of the year also declined.

While I am hopeful that this outcome would result in the legislature taking pause to revisit the program, I would not count on it. See, the Master Educator Premium provides a way for the legislature to claim they are improving veteran teacher salaries without actually having to commit the funding that is required to truly move the needle. I wouldn’t hold my breath on this program going away.

The Idaho Public Charter School Commission had its moment in the limelight. A leaked audio recording shed light on what occurs behind the scenes during executive sessions. 

And while unprofessionalism on the part of commission members is what made the headlines, the real story is about data that should have been talked about in the open portion of the meeting, but is not.

The overwhelming portion of executive session was spent talking about negative data points for Idaho’s charter schools. Despite the fact that there is literally no reason to talk about this data behind closed doors at it is publicly available, the commission discussed this behind closed doors anyways. 

While I cannot claim to know the intent of such a practice, it leads Joe Public to believe the IPCSC only wants to talk publicly about the good data of Idaho’s charter schools, and sweeps the bad under the rug behind closed doors.

 

Tamara Baysinger

Tamara Baysinger, longtime IPCSC Director resigned a few months after the leak. Perhaps a shakeup at the commission is also necessary to ensure the IPCSC starts holding charter schools accountable. 

The biggest topic during the legislative session involved a plan to shift Idaho from an average daily attendance formula to an enrollment based formula. This proposal has been years in the making.

As I wrote at the time, enrollment based funding opens up the gates to potential fraud, particularly with online charter schools. Many of the states that have shifted to the enrollment based model have become targets of for profit online charter schools in which a student enrolls, but never actually completed any coursework.

But in an enrollment based model, that doesn’t matter. As long as the student is enrolled, the charter gets paid. Nifty huh?

Enrollment based funding is really just the first step to a voucher system in Idaho. Once the state determines how much a student is worth on the roster, expect the legislature to concoct a method to send that check strait to private and religious schools.

Don’t mind Idaho’s Blaine Amendment. That’s the State’s constitutional provision that explicitly prohibits the state to send the public’s purse to religious institutions. I fully expect a new version of a voucher bill to be presented to allow vouchers.

Reclaim Idaho has not fallen stagnant after the Medicaid expansion. They have pivoted to a new ballot initiative that would modestly increase corporate tax and personal income tax for Idaho’s wealthiest to create a dedicated item fund for public schools.

57,000 signatures are due by the end of April to get it on the ballot. Assuming they are successful, this will be on November’s 2020 ballot (full disclosure: I am actively working on this ballot initiative with Reclaim Idaho).

Speaking of ballot measures, Governor Little vetoed a bill last year that would have made ballot measures all but impossible by increasing the amount of districts that must independently qualify in addition to total signatures. 

Little stated he was not certain the bill would pass constitutionality if challenged in court as Idaho’s constitution explicitly allows for ballot initiatives, and the court would likely find such legislation as a burdensome measure meant to prohibit such initiatives. I fully expect the legislature to take another shot at limiting ballot initiatives this session.

Idaho pumped the brakes in increasing minimum teacher salaries this year. It was on track to finally pay the final portion of career ladder salary allocation with a base of 40k. Instead, the base increased to only 38.5 this year with a promise of 40k next year.

This on the heels of a report that despite increasing the base salary over the past 5 years, Idahos teachers are actually down six percent in compensation when including inflation in comparison to a decade ago.

I would estimate that the legislature would look at the veteran side of the career ladder compensation this session as the Governor’s taskforce recommended. However, if an increase in compensation is approved I fully imagine it to be at least a five year program that will barely move the needle after adjusting for inflation.

Idaho Education Association President Kari Overall resigned unexpectedly in December.

Layne McInelly

Former Vice President Layne McInelly will now take the helm of the organization just weeks prior to the beginning of the legislative session. The IEA has not disclosed details regarding Overall’s resignation. 

Idaho’s universities froze their tuition this year. While this is a solid measure meant to slow the increasing costs of attending public colleges, the reality is that the tuition increases are directly in line with smaller and smaller state funding for Idaho’s universities while increased enrollment and inflation continue. 

The real solution to stop the escalating costs is for the state to reinvest in post-secondary schooling. I would not count on any increases as the Governor did not exempt colleges from the one percent austerity measure either.

2020 is an election year. I would expect republican representatives with a primary challenger to shift even further to the right to prove the purity test. That means I wouldn’t count on any bold new spending packages. 

In fact, Idaho’s road infrastructure is desperately underfunded as well, but here again I would not hold my breath for any major increases for improvements. An increase in gas tax to benefit public highways is just not going to happen in an election year.

So what do I realistically see in my crystal ball?

The legislature will proceed with caution due to lower than projected tax revenues. While everyone Hope’s this is a blip, after 2008 we take even the hint of recession seriously. Don’t count on any new major programs. 

I anticipate K-12 teachers to get a raise, but I predict this will simply be tied to inflation. If there is going to be an actual attempt to increase veteran teacher salaries, I don’t see it happening in a year with lower than projected tax revenue.

And even if some sort of tangible increase makes it through, the question is what the legislature will want in return. Remember when Tiered Licensure / Career Ladder was rolled out as the only way Idaho teachers would get a raise?

Idaho’s teachers gutted the worst parts of that proposal, but I would expect similar policies will make a reappearance if the legislature actually agrees to a new salary initiative. 

I see property taxes being front and center this session. Property prices have skyrocketed in the Treasure Valley along with subsequent property taxes. The legislature previously capped the homeowner’s exemption to 100k. It is time to take another look at that number.

My crystal ball is right just as often as it is wrong, so who knows? Happy New Years and stay tuned to the legislative session!

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