Public schools move closer to scrap heap

Idaho State Journal Editorial

Conservative politicians are not shy about telling us the public school system in this country and state is broken. They say it has become an unreliable used car that requires prohibitively expensive repairs to keep it going.

Is it time to put our public schools up on blocks and pull that state license plate off?

Voters would have to amend Article IX of the Idaho Constitution, but given the climate in Idaho’s legislature and moves being orchestrated by state superintendent Tom Luna, maybe that’s the more honest thing to do.

It would be more honest than drying up state funds, cutting teachers, hamstringing local funding efforts and mandating outsourced instruction. All of these moves seemed designed with one goal in mind: drive the public school system into the ground. Once it’s truly inoperable, the public will have no choice but to accept a ride from private enterprise.

This transition from public to private seems to be a legislative goal.

Last year, Idaho’s legislature allocated 7.5 percent less money for K-12 public instruction. Local schools turned to local property taxpayers for help and received it, but cuts were still made to programs and personnel. Special levy elections to mitigate losses could be set whenever an Idaho district faced a financial crisis.

The legislature closed that option last session when it mandated two spring election dates only for school districts. And these elections now have to be done by county, not school officials. The first date arrives March 8 and many southeast Idaho districts, including Pocatello will go to the voters for supplemental funds. Because the date is mandatory, they will do it without knowing what the legislature will ultimately do to reduce state funding.

Limiting the dates for school funding elections runs school districts into a wall.

This year, without input from local school boards, parents, students and especially teachers, Luna offered legislation to drastically revamp Idaho’s school system. The plan was never revealed during his re-election bid last fall.

The scheme has two parts: strip employment rights from teacher contracts to reduce the number of teachers and use the money to buy laptop computers to help meet new mandatory requirements for on-line course work. With this move, the state is essentially removing the steering wheel from local districts and cutting discretionary funds even further.

Some conservatives also want to knock first gear out of the public school transmission and eliminate state funding for kindergarten.

The last stage of converting public education to private is to convince the public the old heap just isn’t worth saving. School reformers say a newer model based on free enterprise would be more efficient and cheaper to maintain. They point out that foreign education models are kicking America’s butt. For example, eighth graders in tiny Singapore are ranked first in math and science exams while American kids are chugging in at 17th to 28th.

Reformers are less likely to reveal Singapore spends more than 16 percent of its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) on public education while the U.S. spends 5.7 percent.

How much are we willing to spend on education in Idaho? If the answer is as little as possible, lawmakers may offer us SchoolMart.