Bringing the Economy Home

Sen. Goedde: The Best Way To Equalize Idaho Schools Is Through Digital Learning

Idaho Legislature

State Sen. John Goedde is a Republican from Coeur d’Alene. He’s chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee. It’s a panel that will be closely watched during the upcoming legislative session as lawmakers figure out what to do now that voters rejected three sweeping education laws.

We spoke with Goedde earlier this month to get his take on a few issues sure to be hot topics during the session; education, the personal property tax, and health care. Much as it is annual, Goedde says his number one focus will be watching the budget.

A: A huge part will be the budget. We’re not living up to our projections from our last budget session. We’re going to have to take a close look at what kind of growth we might expect this time around and be very, very careful. The worst thing we can do, and I understand that now from 12 years of experience, is to over-forecast and then have to do hold-backs mid-term. That’s terrible. We have to deal with the Affordable Care Act, which is Medicaid expansion or not. And the establishment of a state health exchange, or to accept by default a federal exchange. Those issues will be hotly debated, and it will take us a lot of time to get through that.

Of course the other issue is education. We had sweeping bills that were passed two sessions ago, and were repealed this fall.  There were parts of those bills I believe that can be resurrected and passed again this year. And I think those parts can be done with consensus from at least most parties. So I look forward to that process.  I understand the governor announced the formation of a fairly large committee, which I think will be good to get public input. My concern is, large committees don’t function very quickly. I don’t know that they’re going to have results or recommendations this legislative session.

Q: Do you feel like this session will be a cooling off period on education, or are there things you need to address right away?

A: There are some immediate issues that need to be resolved, just to bring us back to the status quo. You’ll see a number of bills that address the use-it or lose-it provisions. The math and science teachers, professional development, and so on. Beyond that, I think there’s an impetus to move forward.

We’ll identify those parts of reform that we have some consensus on. I believe you’ll see a difference in focus though. You’ll see local districts taking up the torch, either the Idaho School Boards Association or the school administrators. One of the ‘no’ campaign focus, was this was top-down, and there was no local control.  Certainly, we can turn it the other way around – start at a local control standpoint, and come to the same conclusions, or at least partly the same conclusions. I look forward to that opportunity.

Q: The state has been in and out of court over the last couple of decades over the way schools are funded. There is a new lawsuit working its way through the court system that contends Idaho is shirking its constitutional duty to provide free and uniform public schools. Is Idaho funding education to the best of its ability?

A: The Supreme Court decision dealt with buildings only. We solved our maintenance and operation issue in the late 80s, early 90s. That solution came from a lawsuit. I guess there are two issues. Since the Supreme Court decision, the Legislature has done some things to try to help those property-poor districts fund buildings. Interest forgiveness, and even partial principle forgiveness for example. I don’t know how much further we can go down that road, unless the state starts to assume building construction. If we do that, my guess is we’re going to develop plain-Jane plans, and this is the building you’re going to get, regardless of the district you’re in. And there won’t be opportunities to enhance that with local money because again, then you’re crossing the line.

From the maintenance and operations standpoint, we are developing a problem. We’ve allowed districts to supplement what we’re paying them for programs in their districts. Again, those districts that are property-rich, it’s much easier to pass levies to do that. We’re creating an inequity between those that can pass levies and those that can’t. There are property rich districts that can’t pass levies. And I don’t know where that goes.

We are strained additionally with increases in Corrections and Health and Welfare.  And in my opinion we are using state money as efficiently as we can. We have a constitutional requirement to balance the budget. So, the only other option then would be to raise taxes. When we’re trying to raise ourselves out of a recession, that’s a very hard thing to do.

There is one hope. Congress is looking at the Marketplace Fairness Act. Legislators from around the country are lobbying in hopes the Senate would move that through. This would be an opportunity to collect sales tax on internet sales – and certainly that would be an additional revenue source for states if Congress will allow it.

Q: Sticking with education funding, the Legislature attempted to fix funding issues when it replaced funding schools with sales tax dollars, instead of primarily using property tax dollars – did that work?

A: That goes back to the days of Governor [Phil] Batt. Prior to Governor Batt, local districts were allowed to levy 4 mils for maintenance and operation, that was property taxed based. Governor Batt was able to take one mil off, so there were 3 mils. Then, we eliminated the property tax component in favor of sales tax, which funded most of it. There was still a little bit of a gap there we took from the general fund.

Q: That was meant to address the inequity, right?

A: I’m going to answer it from a perception standpoint, because I’m not sure that it did. The perception of the Legislature, and certainly what I heard personally, is the property tax is the most onerous tax the state collected. You pay property tax once, or twice. You pay sales tax whenever you make a purchase. And you have income tax withheld from your paychecks. So it was the perceived biggest hit. It certainly was my impression there was a lot of support for removal for the 3 mils for schools, at the time we did it. There are some segments of our population that say it was a bad thing to do. I’m not sure that’s the case yet.

Q: What do you have left in the toolbox to make things more equitable?

A: Well, we started down that road. I believe that digital opportunities are one of the biggest tools, the best tools, to solve inequity problems. Particularly, when you’re looking at opportunities for urban students verses opportunities for rural students. You’re going to have a really difficult time providing a good calculus teacher in every high school in this state. But if you, as a group of districts in southwestern Idaho have done, have one really good calculus teacher in a district that offers then distance education in four other districts.  And a good French teacher in another district, who then offers French classes to five other districts.  That’s an efficiency we’ve got the ability to take advantage of now, if we’ve got the desire to do it.

The former principal at Notus High School, when he came to the high school, there were three elective classes available for the high school – that’s all, everything else was a requirement. He set up a computer lab and he had 33 classes available the next year.  That’s a huge difference. In urban areas, distance learning offers students the opportunity to take required classes that conflict with electives they’d like to take. You can take an English class at night or early in the morning, whatever your schedule fits. Then take that poetry class or art class that you really have an interest in, when it’s offered. So, there are huge opportunities there if we can get past the perception that we’re replacing teachers with mobile devices.

Q: So, having schools on board would go a long way in going that direction…

A: And we have some schools on board. We have schools in this state that have one-to-one laptops, and use them very effectively. We also have schools that educators don’t have the knowledge base to use those devices. So we need to provide more professional development for teachers, so they can really understand what they’ve got. That, I believe will continue to be funded.

Q: When you’re looking at the budget for next session – do you plan to continue to put money back into education that had been cut over the last few years?

A: We put back about $30 million into the education budget last year. When the reform bills were originally passed, all the pay for performance money came from salary based apportionment. We said we’d keep the 1.63 percent, but we’re going to replace the rest of that with general fund money. Now that the reforms have been repealed, that money is not available. It will be up to this Legislature to determine what happens with that.

Q: Any guesses?

A: I truly don’t know yet. I will say this Legislature is more conservative than the last. And will be very, very careful with their money.

Q: StateImpact spent a big chunk of the fall reporting on Idaho’s doctor shortage, and some of the contributors to the shortage. One of which is the limited options for medical education in Idaho. I understand there will be a proposal this session to increase the number of medical school seats through the WWAMI program. Would you support that?

A: There was an effort at one point to look at a medical school for Idaho – and there is no question the WWAMI program is the most efficient use of tax dollars to bring doctors to Idaho. I really support WWAMI. They’ve given us the option of expanded seats, at one point they offered us an option to double our seats. It’s a funding issue – and I hope we can find a way to do that.

There is another issue, the residency programs. There is more correlation to where a doctor does his residency than where he goes to medical school. Coeur d’Alene is looking at a general practice residency program, and I’m sure they’ll be coming to the state for some funding of that, though a lot of it will be funded locally.

Q: What do you want to see happen with expanding Medicaid and the health insurance exchange?

A: I was on the governor’s workgroup on the health exchange. There is still a perception among some people that we don’t have to do anything – that we can just not address the issue, and the exchange won’t happen. That is not the case. Exchanges are coming. The Department of Health and Humans Services last week issued three or four rules, hundreds of pages in preparation for implementation. So it’s going to happen one way or another. I would personally like to see an exchange with as many state-based opportunities as possible. It’s fairly prescriptive. So we don’t have a whole lot of wiggle room.  But any wiggle room we’ve got, I’d like to see exercised here. Our health insurance costs are some of the lowest in the country and our mandated coverage are the fewest — that helps to drive down cost. I’d hate to see us pooled with other states, and then have to bear the burden of costs there.

Q: Do you think your colleagues will agree with you?

A: There is a very apparent divide, and I think in both houses, the Senate and the House, on that issue. I think there is probably a greater divide on the Medicaid expansion issue. I’m not privy yet to the information that led the Medicaid work group to make the recommendation they did.

Q: Do you want to see Idaho’s personal property tax phased out, or eliminated all together?

A: I think the business personal property tax, is not the tax itself, but the cost of accounting for business personal property and cutting the check. A fairly good sized business owner in my district said it cost him as much in accounting as it was to pay the tax. He was talking in excess of $10,000. So there may be a more efficient way to collect that tax burden. I recognize that local units of governments in some counties and cities rely heavily on property tax. There are some cities where it’s 30 percent of their budget. I don’t see how we can, in any fairness, just eliminate that revenue stream for those local governments. There has to be something there to support them.

This interview has been edited and shortened.


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