Friday, December 19, 2008

Schools are Idaho's economic engines

By Reps. Liz Chavez, Branden Durst and Donna Pence

Our state and nation are facing the worst budget crisis we’ve seen in several decades. News reports indicate that the Idaho Legislature may be forced to do something it has never done: decrease year-to-year funding for our public schools and perhaps even scuttle state mandates for funding education. As parents, educators and legislators, we will be asking hard questions about what such unprecedented moves would mean for our state’s future.

It’s clear that times are difficult, and Democratic lawmakers recognize the need for frugality. Gov. Butch Otter has ordered a total of 6 percent in planned and possible budget holdbacks for the current fiscal year, and he has asked state agencies to plan for similar cuts in the 2010 budget, which the legislature will set this winter.

John Goedde, the Senate Education Committee chairman, says the state will probably take $60 million from the Public Education Stabilization Fund for 2009 to avoid cuts to public education in the current fiscal year. With the fund standing at $113 million, that would leave just $53 million in the fund. That probably won’t be enough to cover anticipated shortfalls for 2010, if (as expected) the economy continues to sputter. With that in mind, House Education Committee chairman Robert Nonini recently told the Coeur d’Alene Press that the legislature may need to cut public school funding for 2010 below 2009 levels and perhaps even change state statutes that make public education funding mandatory.

First of all, let’s be clear that Republican tax policy is a big reason we’ve reached this crisis. In 2007, at the behest of Gov. Jim Risch, the GOP-dominated legislature eliminated the public school maintenance and operations levy and replaced the money by increasing the state sales tax to 6 percent from 5 percent. Although the same measure made a one-time contribution to the Education Stabilization Fund, the tax shift wreaked havoc on the long-term health of our state’s education funding formula - and that was before the current economic downturn sent sales tax revenue spiraling downward.

We’re stuck with that bad decision. Bearing the current economic conditions in mind, however, Idaho Democratic legislators will insist on three things:

First, a portion of the Education Stabilization Fund must be used to keep K-12 education whole in the current budget year. Despite the recession, we need to be sure that Idaho’s children continue to receive a quality education. Idaho consistently ranks near the bottom of all 50 states in its funding for public education. Our children often use decades-old textbooks in some of the nation’s most crowded classrooms. We cannot afford to fall further behind.

Second, as people lose their jobs, retraining for displaced workers becomes an ever-more critical issue. The Legislature must find ways to minimize cutbacks to colleges, universities and vocational-technical schools to continue providing the work force development that’s necessary for our communities.

Third, hard economic times are no excuse to overturn the state’s mandate to fund public education. Our schools and colleges are key engines of our state’s economic recovery. We cannot allow short-term economic distress to change our longstanding policy of investing in our children to create good jobs for the future.

The State of Idaho needs to balance its budget, but we must not do so on the backs of our state’s future: our schoolchildren and our adults who are training for new jobs in a tough economy.

State Reps. Liz Chavez of Lewiston, Branden Durst of Boise and Donna Pence of Gooding are members of the House Education Committee.