Stephen Hartgen 01

It’s fall again so we expect to see the usual pie-in-the-sky ideas from the minority party on how, by just penciling in more money from the state (that’s you, taxpayers) on a social issue, it will just get better. Ah, if it were that simple.

The most recent idea from the Dems (but not a new one) would be to wipe way student loan obligations, -- ala Bernie Sanders/Paulette Jordan “free education” fashion -- with the stroke of a pen for teachers who agree to teach in Idaho’s rural schools.

The proponents, both former teachers but not from tiny districts, argue that this would be an economic benefit to rural school districts. They also pan their Republican legislative colleagues who they say have “refused to make this necessary investment in Idaho’s teachers.”

Would that it were true. But it’s not. Here are some inconvenient truths (Thanks, Al Gore.) about education spending in Idaho:

One. Idaho’s investment in education is already continuous and sizeable. Over the past six years (from 2013-2019), Idaho has increased education spending by at least $100 million every year, (Idaho Budget, Fiscal Facts, 2019) with the 2020 budget proposal in the same range. Over almost 30 years, from 1990, Idaho’ school budget has grown almost 500 percent.

Much of that money has gone to improving teacher salaries, who have never taken home more money than they’re doing right now. The median elementary school teacher pay in southern Idaho is now over $50,000; the median for secondary teachers is over $60,000. (Idaho Dept. of Labor stats, Oct. 2019).

Two. Classroom teaching positions are being filled, but by people entering teaching after other careers, and often with degrees in other fields. The proponents call these new teachers “unlicensed” but that’s not so either. They gain alternative certification through a specific route, and they’re licensed to teach. CSI’s program in in this area has jumped from under 20 to over 80 prospective new teachers in just one year. 

Nor are Idaho teachers leaving in droves for other state, as is claimed by the teachers’ union. Indeed, surveys show that most Idaho teachers are here by choice not coercion, love their jobs, love the kids they teach and appreciate the community support they receive.

Three. A “debt-reduction” plan is already available to teachers who decide to teach in a rural or poor school.  It’s a federal student loan reduction program that’s been in place for decades. It already does exactly what’s envisioned; it reduces student loans for teachers who work in rural, deprived or other qualified communities. Oddly, the proponents of an additional state program didn’t mention this in-place program at all. Guess it doesn’t fit their “woe-is-us” teacher narrative.

Nor do proponents give any estimate of the potential cost to taxpayers of wiping out teacher debt.  Nada. Nothing. Hey, money grows on trees if you’ve got something new and shiny you want to give a certain group but want others (that would be you, dear taxpayers) to pay for it.

Four. The “teacher debt wipe out” (No, it’s not a newly-discovered  Beach Boys song) has failed to gain legislative traction because it’s not good public policy. Rather, it’s really nothing more than a goodie item to the teachers’ union, the Idaho Education Association. Most legislators didn’t fall off the sugar beet truck last week; they can spot a “gimme” pretty well, which is what this is.

Five. Then, there’s the basic fairness issue. The proposal doesn’t help the many teachers who worked their way through college without substantial debt and are now employed. Are they less worthy? Nor does it help people in other careers, such as law enforcement, agriculture, social work, or business, you name it.

These hard-working Idahoans have student loans too, last we checked. Surely, we don’t want to create an unfair system in which one profession with a powerful union gets a “bennie” while others can’t qualify for because they chose other career paths.

In short, this idea would be an unfair and probably expensive “carve out” in career selection, and hasn’t advanced in the Legislature because, well, it’ a perk, pure and simple.

Idaho citizens appreciate their teachers and show that through their regular tax commitments for salaries, benefits, generally good working conditions and the like. Wiping out teacher debt by state funding should be DOA in Boise, a surfboard “wipe out” which never catches the California wave.

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.