Students need safe learning environments

It’s the issue three-quarters of Idahoans want the Legislature to address: education. The latest Public Policy Survey from Boise State University revealed most Idahoans only give the state’s schools a passing grade. Idaho’s executive branch seems to agree. Gov. Brad Little declared education one of his top priorities for 2020. Both Little and Superintendent Sherri Ybarra proposed budgets that, while not extravagant, focused on boosting teacher pay. Ybarra’s proposal also included an increase in per-classroom funding, which has been long overdue.

However, it’s the legislative branch that drafts the budgets, and so far their plans seem inspired by Charles Dickens.

Right now two bills are under consideration that would cut the number of times a year a bond issue can go before voters. The first, which passed the House last week, sets a limit of once every 11 months. District 30 Rep. Wendy Horman proposed another bill that’s slightly less drastic, cutting only the March and August ballots. Her draft made it out of committee on Monday.

Supporters say repeated bond referendums cost too much and annoy voters. Idaho Freedom Foundation head Wayne Hoffman likened the referendum reruns to a kid repeatedly begging for candy even after they’ve already been given some. That attitude is why school districts keep putting bond issues up for a vote in the first place. We have allowed ourselves to think of education as a treat instead of food.

School districts wouldn’t have to rely on bond issues to pay for facilities upgrades if they had reliable funding through other channels. They don’t. Idaho law restricts facilities funding to local property taxes. So districts must turn to the public to ask not for bells and whistles, but safe, up-to-date learning environments. It’s not a child with a belly full of sugar asking for more candy as it is Oliver Twist, a starving boy, politely asking the master of the workhouse he was born in for more gruel. Here in Idaho, the master isn’t a singular person but a mandate that supplemental levies need a two-thirds majority to pass. That gives a “no” vote more weight than a “yes” and enables a slim minority of people to shut down an initiative that most voters want.

Meanwhile, a sinkhole on Idaho Falls High School’s campus puts students and teachers at risk. Oliver’s stomach still growls.

In the novel, the workhouse owners confine Oliver and then sell him off so they don’t have to feed him. Idaho lawmakers are writing a similar story. Their efforts to dismiss the needs of schools and avoid education funding reform head-on will only make the current power imbalance between districts and voters bigger, and buildings still won’t get fixed. Beyond that, there are only two options available. Lawmakers can ensure safer learning environments for Idaho students and feed a (metaphorical) hungry kid — or they can find out what happens when Oliver escapes.