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Can Idaho Spend its Way to Better Public Education?


Idaho’s latest education gambit involves increasing spending more than 12.5% per year. Gov. Little was especially proud of the almost $50 million dedicated to increasing literacy. That may just be the beginning. Reclaim Idaho has apparently gotten enough signatures to put an initiative on November's ballot to increase education spending by an additional $300 million per year for a decade.


Little is simply going with the flow across the country. Both the country and the state have been trying to improve student achievement with more spending for decades. The country is spending more on education than ever. Nearly 7% of every dollar spent in the United States is spent on education, up from under 3% in 1950. But more money has not lead to better education. Anywhere. Period.


America directs more and more money to students in need and minorities (Title 1 students). White students do better than black students on all measures of achievement. It is not because less money is spent on black students, however. As one study shows, on average, the country spends $229.53 more on every black student in the country than on every white. We have been trying to bridge the racial achievement gap in education with more spending for more than four decades. It has not worked.


The best funded American states (New York, New Jersey) do not have the highest test scores. The worst funded states (Arizona and Utah) do not have the lowest test scores. The best funded school districts in the country (like Washington D.C.) do not have high test scores. The worst funded do not have the lowest. Colorado gets the same or better educational outcomes as New York, for half the price. More money does not make for better education.


International data show the same thing. The poorest countries in Africa do a lot worse on tests. Many students there do not have basic school buildings or learning materials. Above that level, increased spending is unrelated to quality education. According to one commentator, the USA “spends something like 8 times what Vietnam spends per student and performs just about exactly as well, while Luxemburg spends more than anyone else in the world and performs worse.” More money does not lead to better education.


More money does not produce better education within Idaho. Many high performing school districts and charter schools spend less than poor-performing, high-cost schools. Coeur d'Alene Charter, for instance, spent about $7,500 per pupil, well below the state average, but was a top ten school in the state. Salmon River School in Riggens spent almost $19,000 per student but it ranked 313th best school in the state. More money does not lead to a better education.


Idaho has been trying to increase student achievement with increased spending for years. Gov. “Butch” Otter organized a task force on education in 2013. The group released twenty recommendations and benchmarks, including one for improving literacy and one for increased spending. Only the benchmark for more spending was clearly met and surpassed.


That task force claimed that literacy would improve with more spending. Literacy did not improve. If it had improved, why would Gov. Little be spending an additional $47 million on literacy? According to Idaho’s Report Card, literacy among third graders has declined from about 75% to 70% in the last four years. Idaho’s English Language Arts scores have stagnated and fallen short of the task force goals. English proficiency among 3-8 graders has fallen from nearly 60% in 2018 to 48% in 2021. The solution? More money.


The task force promised teacher accountability. But teachers are not more accountable (and teacher accountability will probably not lead to better education anyways). According to Idaho Ed News, 98% of the teachers and administrators in Idaho earn top ratings on their evaluations. Nearly everyone is above average! That is not accountability.


Student test scores did not improve (they went down). College readiness did not improve. Nothing got better but the system is more expensive.


Miraculously, however, though student achievement went down, a higher percentage of students graduated from Idaho high schools. Failing forward helps keep up appearances.


A focus on spending allows politicians to claim credit for outputs. More graduates. More money spent. Higher teacher retention. But none of those things mean that the outcomes of Idaho’s education system are better or even adequate. None of them suggest we are getting a good deal. Evidence all points to the contrary.


This is the rub. If politicians and school administrators recognized the bad, costly outcomes, then, presumably, they would have to do something about it. They might have to shake up the system as a whole. That is unthinkable. So they continue to pretend, despite all evidence, that more money will produce better results. Maybe next time more money will work.


This situation is not unique to Idaho. Idaho’s pass-for-show and pay-the-dough approach defines modern education system's race to the bottom. Our educrats and politicians are no worse than those in most other states. But they are also no better.


For an explanation of what distinguishes good from bad schools, see

Idaho's Culture of Failure

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