As members of JFAC (Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee), we set all budgets and approve all appropriations for the state. We were delighted when Gov. Little made education his top priority in his State of the State address. However, we became concerned when we saw some of his proposed education budgets.
The governor’s budget recommends more money for Opportunity Scholarships which we applaud. The purpose of these Opportunity Scholarships is to “remove barriers to higher education and prepare college/university graduates to enter the workforce.” An increase in available scholarship money will likely increase student attendance at Idaho colleges and universities.
This influx of students (which is never a bad thing) will force Idaho colleges and universities to serve more students with less money. State support for colleges and universities has dropped drastically over the years, creating a culture of thinking outside the box. Currently, colleges and universities are being asked to cut their budgets. Our educational institutions are looking at a 1% holdback for this year, 2% cut next year and 50% reduction in occupancy costs altogether.
Coupling this knowledge with the recent tuition freeze and the mandatory budget cuts, Idaho colleges and universities are facing very tough choices in the near future. Not to neglect our fledgling community college in Eastern Idaho, only a few years old, needs faculty to meet the demands of an increasing student population.
On-campus libraries will be cutting their hours and reducing subscriptions to articles, periodicals, and journals which are an invaluable research resource. Student union buildings will also reduce their hours. Some worthwhile programs and classes will be at risk.
However, the biggest cuts will be to the people who make the schools run: personnel. Each university’s plan includes large personnel cuts, meaning fewer faculty and staff to guide those first-generation students, who need more support, mental health counseling, mentoring, and other services. In addition, first-generation students are the largest recipients of the Opportunity Scholarship.
Education is intrinsically the business of people. A teacher can make a student fall in love with learning. A guidance counselor can help a student make it through a tough class. An advisor can ensure a student graduates on time. When we cut personnel, we cut services our students desperately need and put their educational success at risk.
When we invest in our students, we create a competitive workforce that can contribute to our thriving economy and make Idaho a great place to live. At this point everyone knows how important workforce development is to Idaho businesses and economy.
While we want to honor the governor’s directive, we feel these cuts to higher education are too severe. Under the current budget proposal, we would effectively cripple our education system. In a time of growth and prosperity, we have the opportunity to set the narrative for the future. Our goal is to restore some of these cuts. We think Gov. Little would agree this is a worthwhile investment. An investment in education is an investment in our children, grandchildren and our state.