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Idaho Isn't Very Fair About How It Doles Out School Cash, Report Finds

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A report from the New Jersey-based advocacy group the Education Law Center, says Idaho does not do a good job spending its education money fairly for all students.

Per student education spending in Idaho is consistently one of the lowest in the nation. That fact frequently comes up in the state’s education debates, but quoting dollar figures doesn’t tell us anything about how well that money is being used.

The Education Law Center's report finds Idaho's education funding inequity has resulted in low wages for teachers and poor access to early-childhood education.

The study looks at 'fairness' as how well a state uses its money to help students overcome obstacles created by poverty.  According to this report, a third of Idaho kids (more than 100,000) go to school in districts where 20 to 30 percent of students live below the federal poverty line. Almost two-thirds (nearly 200,000) are in districts with 10 to 20 percent poverty. The separation of poor and non-poor students is of particular concern to the writers of this report.

“Decades of research demonstrates that concentrated poverty is a significant barrier to educational progress. The increasing isolation of poor students in schools and districts presents what may be the most daunting challenge currently facing American public education.”

Only 4 percent of Idaho districts have more than 30 percent of students in poverty, and no Idaho districts have less than 10 percent poverty. Compared to many states, Idaho has relatively little concentration of poverty. In Colorado for example, about a quarter of students go to school in districts with less than 10 percent  poverty and about a quarter are in districts with more than 30 percent poverty.

The report measures each state according to four fairness criteria.

Funding level: This is not simply money spent, rather the authors try to factor in things like regional wage variation and population differences. After the math, Idaho comes in dead last, spending $6,753 per student in 2011 (the year this report looks at.) That’s less than half what Wyoming spent at $17,397.

Funding distribution: This is about how much more (or less) money poor districts get than wealthy ones. Idaho is near the bottom of the pack on this measure, earning an 'F.' Idaho does have a formula to give more state money to poor districts, but because of a heavy reliance on local funding through supplemental levies, Idaho’s wealthiest districts have about $800 more per student than its poorest districts.

Utah makes an interesting comparison here. Utah is second only to Idaho in terms of low funding, but gets an 'A' in funding distribution. In Idaho’s southern neighbor, the poorest districts get about $1,425 more than the wealthiest.

Credit schoolfundingfairness.org
This chart compares funding distribution for Idaho and some of its neighbors.

Effort: The effort a state puts into funding education is the percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) it sends to schools. Idaho got a 'D' for effort in 2011, spending about 0.03 percent of GDP on education. The states with the greatest effort spent about 0.05 percent of their GDP on schools.

Coverage: 'Coverage' is complicated. It has to do with how many school-aged children go to private schools versus public schools, and the income differences in their families. The logic behind this measure is that if a high percentage of a state’s families, especially rich families, take their kids out of public schools there will be less public will to fairly fund those schools.  

This measure is Idaho’s highlight on the report. The state ranks 5th nationally. Ninety-one percent of Idaho kids between 6-and 16-years-old are in public schools, and there is a $20,000 difference between average incomes for families using public versus private schools. In Louisiana, just 81 percent of children went to public schools and families using private schools made nearly $60,000 more per year.   

A second opinion

The Education Law Center report is the most detailed look at education funding fairness but not the only one. For example Education Week’s 2014 Quality Counts Report Card grades states in several categories including funding. In that report Idaho’s school finance system got a 'D-' overall but a 'C' for funding equity.

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