At least we're not last

Census data shows Idaho student spending ranks No. 49

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When it comes to spending per student, Idaho is about as tight as they come, according to Census data released Wednesday.

An estimated $7,092 was spent per student from all revenue sources during the 2008-2009 school year. The amount is the second-lowest in the nation behind Utah at $6,356, according to the report.

To the taxpayer, that can be worth celebrating, especially during tough times. But is the frugal spending getting to the point where a quality education is starting to go down the drain?

"If things don't change very soon, we will be at that point," said Tom Taggart, the Lakeland School District's financial director, adding that he's not surprised at the ranking. "The sad part is that there is no reason to think we will not remain (near the bottom) for some time to come."

Taggart said he understands that student spending is not a good way to measure commitment to education, but there is a point where funding is so low that districts can't even do the basic job, let alone continue to do it well.

"You can't claim to be committed to student achievement when you don't provide the basic funding needed to operate," he said. "Without additional financial support for Idaho's schools, there will not be continued increases in student achievement. You can't 'reform' your way out of this."

Post Falls resident Bill Matthews said there has to be a balance. He wonders if Idaho's conservative spending has reached the breaking point.

"I understand the economy has been in the tank, and I understand and appreciate that the state needs to control spending," he said. "But I also believe education of our youth is very delicate, and we don't want to mess too much with falling further behind the world.

"Spending needs to be looked at in all areas. If government insists on student achievement, it needs to provide adequate funding to stay the course."

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna has said spending is not the best tool for measuring a state's commitment to educational success, and the real goal is achievement.

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, agrees.

"Spending more dollars on education does not mean students will receive a better education," Goedde said.

Goedde said he's also not surprised that Idaho is near the bottom on student spending, considering the state also ranks among the lowest in per-capita income.

"We spend what we can afford to spend and the Legislature has always given K-12 education a priority when setting budgets, even in lean years," he said.

Melissa McGrath, Idaho State Department of Education spokeswoman, said the most important factor in a student's academic success is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.

"That is why Superintendent Luna pushed for the Students Come First education reform laws to ensure every student has a highly qualified teacher every year they are in school and access to the best educational opportunities no matter where they live," McGrath said.

McGrath said the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that Idaho students are performing well when compared to other students across the nation, including those in states that spend significantly more per student.

In eighth-grade reading, for example, 14 states had an average score higher than Idaho students. In eighth-grade math, eight states had an average score higher than Idaho students.

Post Falls Superintendent Jerry Keane said he believes that local districts continue to find ways to stay the course despite funding reductions.

"We have always been able to provide excellent educational opportunities with fewer resources," said Keane, adding that districts' per pupil expenditure has dropped even further with cuts over the past two fiscal years.

Coeur d'Alene Superintendent Hazel Bauman said the district is fortunate to have local taxpayers fill the gap to allow the district to continue to provide a quality education.

"It is not the case in other areas of Idaho," she said. "But we are not immune. The cuts to education we see in Idaho are affecting the programs we deliver to students and our class sizes have increased. Both have an impact on the learning environment."

Public schools in New York spent the most per student at $18,126 in 2009, according to the Census report. The national average was $10,499 per student, up from $10,259 the previous year.

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