Sophie Stokes spends hundreds of dollars out of her own pocket on school supplies for her students every year. She buys highlighters, glue sticks and other items that, while not always essentials, help make her classes more organized and engaging for her students.
And that’s not unusual for teachers in the Nampa School District, where she works, she said.
“My top priority is to make sure my children enjoy learning when they enter the classroom,” she said. “Everything I’ve done has been directed towards that.”
With funding a priority, Reclaim Idaho, an organization that has been collecting signatures for months to get an initiative on the November ballot to better fund education in Idaho, said it’s optimistic it will meet its deadline. of April 30.
The group, which successfully embarked on the campaign to expand Medicaid in 2018, is now in the home stretch.
To put the initiative before the voting public, volunteers must collect signatures from 6% of registered voters in at least 18 legislative districts and 6% of voters statewide.
Reclaim Idaho sued last year after the Idaho Legislature passed a law that would have made it harder to get an initiative on the ballot. The law would have required that the organization collect the signatures of at least 6% of voters in the 35 legislative districts.
The Idaho Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional. In its opinion, the court wrote that the effect of the law was “to prevent a perceived, but unfounded, fear of the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ replacing it with a real ‘tyranny of the few.’ ”
Reclaim Idaho is pushing for more signings
The initiative, called the Quality Education Act, would restore the corporate tax rate to 8% from 6.5% and raise taxes for individuals earning more than $250,000 a year and couples earning more than $500,000 a year . This increase, of approximately 4.5%, would only apply to sums earned above these amounts.
The group expects it to bring in more than $300 million a year for public education.
If the initiative were voted on and passed, the funds would be distributed statewide on a per student basis, and districts would spend those funds at their own discretion, with oversight from the State Board of Education. According to Reclaim Idaho, the funds could be spent on more competitive teacher salaries or programs such as vocational technical education, full-day kindergarten and special education.
Idaho consistently ranks last or near last in its funding per student. The National Education Association’s most recent report ranks Idaho 51st, behind all states and Washington, D.C.
In recent months, lawmakers have moved to increase funding for public schools. Gov. Brad Little included in his budget an 11% increase in state spending on K-12 education to about $2.3 billion in the next fiscal year. Lawmakers have also approved bills that would give bonuses to teachers and help ease the burden that high health insurance costs place on school employees.
It’s unclear how the funding increases will impact Idaho’s funding per student rankings. That might bump the state up a few spots, but it might not put the state in a significantly higher ranking, Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, told the Idaho Statesman.
Luke Mayville, the co-founder of Reclaim Idaho, said the group has so far collected enough signatures in nine districts. He expects that number to be 10 by this weekend. The group needs fewer than 1,200 signatures from 11 other districts, some of which only need a few hundred more.
In total, Reclaim Idaho collected nearly 68,000 signatures. The group needs a total of about 65,000 valid signatures, so Mayville said the volunteers aim to collect at least 80,000 in total, in case the signatures contain unregistered voters, repeats or other errors.
“We’re in a very strong position,” Mayville told the Statesman in a recent interview.
The biggest challenge in recent months has been the pandemic, he said. The virus has put a strain on volunteers and made it more difficult to hold meetings and organize signature-collecting events. Some who were interested in volunteering also couldn’t take health risks, Mayville said.
“We had to get creative,” he said. “We had to do even more to just get into the communities.
In the latest push, he said the organization will travel around the state more frequently, visit communities, work alongside local volunteers and help collect the final signatures needed.
Teacher pay, facilities a challenge in Idaho
Stokes, who teaches English language arts at Nampa High School, said educators face a number of challenges. Worse still, teacher salaries in the region are not keeping up with the rising cost of living.
“Teaching is certainly a generous profession in many ways, but it’s a field where people are very qualified and want to be compensated adequately for it,” she says. “As Idaho has become more and more popular over the past couple of years and the cost of living is rising, it becomes really difficult to retain good teachers.”
Most of the teachers she knows have other jobs or sources of income, she said. And salary, she added, can play a big role in why some teachers will leave to go to other districts, other states or other professions.
“I’m pretty worried about how many people will be here in my school and in my district,” she said. “Especially with the pandemic, things have been difficult in the community.”
The pandemic has put a strain on teachers, who have had to deal with remote and hybrid learning and have often been caught in the middle of debates over masks and COVID-19 protocols.
Stokes added that schools have relied on levies to operate. For years, until last summer, the roofs of her school leaked every time it rained. Buckets would be placed in hallways to collect water, she said.
Mayville said it’s become even clearer in the past few months that teachers and support staff across the state are facing “tremendous pressure.”
“It’s becoming nearly impossible for districts to hire paraprofessionals, bus drivers, and a number of other positions,” he said. “So the issue of teacher compensation and support staff salaries is very clearly reaching a crisis level.”
This month, Stokes students are reading “Ender’s Game”. Upon entering his classroom in the morning, all the lights are off except for a few space-themed starlight projectors. These are items she bought out of her own pocket.
“Teachers in general work well beyond the required hours and want to…provide the best education for their children,” she said. “But we’re also trained professionals who have, in many cases, gone through expensive programs to get the qualifications to be really good at our jobs and want to be paid adequately.”