Stephen Hartgen 01

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra outlined another proposal this month to boost Idaho’s education funding budget by over $100 million for the next fiscal year, the fifth year running of over $100 million in general fund annual increases.

The increase would be over 5 percent and, while both the governor’s office and the Legislature would need to agree, something close to that number is likely to pass.

The reasons are simple enough: Idaho’s population is growing rapidly at one to three times the national average; classroom units are being added in many school districts and the commitment among legislators to retain good teachers by boosting pay is continuing apace.

Percentages of increase in the education budget for public schools show this pattern clearly. Since 2014, the public school budget has gone up by nearly one third, over 31 percent in five years, with individual years all over 5 percent. That basic number shows the commitment of Idaho’s Legislature and citizens to education funding.

The average teacher pay in Idaho is now well over $50,000 annually for nine-month contracts. Ybarra’s proposed budget gives special emphasis to veteran teachers, with $40 million more proposed specifically for these seasoned classroom instructors.

The real numbers, going back several years, show the state’s continuing commitment coming out of the 2007-2013 recession. The public school education budget has jumped from $1.598 billion in 2013 to over $2.2 billion proposed for next year, with most of the money going to educators’ pay. (www.legislature.idaho.gov).

Yet, despite these increases, some education groups continue to spread a a false picture of Idaho’s education commitment. The Idaho Education Association, the teachers’ union, routinely bashes state leadership for “short-changing” education, citing a single statistic: the state’ low ranking among the states in average pay. Yet, in many other rankings --  including percentage of salary increases, teacher satisfaction, teacher freedom from excessive administrative control -- Idaho ranks much better. Nary a mention of these by the unionists. Guess it doesn’t fit the spend-more-tax-more narrative.

To listen to the IEA, Idaho teachers are a crushed and dispirited lot, anxious to leave their jobs, set upon by churlish administrators and a stingy government, held hostage by an unappreciative populace which sends them surly, misbehaving children whose parents won’t read to them and who barely give them enough to eat. The woe-is-us, poor-teacher litany seems a common IEA theme.

Yet, none of this is reality. If you talk to teachers one-on-one, outside the union forums, you get a very different message:

Most Idaho teachers love their work, love the kids they teach, love their communities. Like folks everywhere, they’d like to be paid more. Who wouldn’t?

But they balance the pay levels -- which greatly exceed Idaho average pay in many communities –with Idaho’s traditional lower costs of living and more livable communities with their lower social conflicts, less community turmoil, ease of friendships and overall quality of life.

And they’ll even tell you they appreciate the childrens’ parents, particularly the most-engaged ones. Quietly, many teachers even appreciate their administrators’ support. Only about half of Idaho teachers even belong to the union, whose dues are over $600 annually, and many feel they get good support from the public and from public officials who approve their regular salary bumps.

In short, Idaho’s teachers are a solid group of professionals, dedicated to their work and living and working in Idaho not by coercion, but by choice. They know nothing’s perfect in the modern American workforce and they generally shy away from ongoing unionist rants. (A 2018 report on “Worst and Best States for Teachers,” www.wallethub.com, ranked Idaho in about the middle of states for teacher satisfaction (28th), 22nd in competition and opportunity to advance, and 28th for work environment.) It would be a smoother relationship with the Legislature if union leaders exhibited the same appreciation.

Sure, we’d like to see better accountability for Idaho teacher performance. Student test scores across the state remain flat to declining, and other measurable results of how well educators teach are hard to come by. The Legislature may have been too willing to just pour on more money, effectively “folding its cards” to the IEA on the accountability issue.

Asked why the IEA union so rarely thanks legislators or citizens for their continuing financial commitment, one IEA union organizer told a Twin Falls civic group this summer that the state “still had long way to go” to pay teachers what she said they’re worth.

So, what is that number? Blaine County School District teachers average over $70,000. Boise’s are over $60,000. Both areas have high property valuations, and wealthier demographic groups. Smaller, poorer, more rural districts pay their teacher less. That’s the real world, which teachers know. A new report finds Idaho veteran teachers are generally taking home more money than ever, and are mostly being compensated above the “career ladder” levels. Veteran teachers are mostly making over $60,000 as well. 

I served on the House Education Committee for two terms when I was in the Idaho Legislature, and while I didn’t agree with every bill or proposal, I found virtually all of my colleagues wanted the same thing: a quality education system for our children, our grandchildren and their children, yet unborn. Despite partisan differences and shrill accusations, citizens should never doubt that.

Ybarra’s proposed budget has many facets, and there’s plenty of room for detailed examination of the particulars. But if one looks at the big picture, and the continuing financial commitment over the years, the numbers speak for themselves of how Idaho citizens put their tax dollars on the line for education.

We’re not as rich as some states, nor do we have unlimited human or financial capital. But no one should doubt Idaho’s resolve to improve the education system year after year after year.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of the new book “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..