Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Choosing between wallets and kids

The column below was written by a guest writer named John Kotek. Kotek is the former deputy manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho Operations Office.

Kotek's article is timely in many areas. One, a diversified high tech industry has stayed away from Idaho because of our poor educational results in the areas of math and science.

Next to that, Idaho ranks very low in terms of quality education.

Now, the question is: What should Idaho do about an estimated $200 million dollar surplus. Do we take some of that and invest it in our future? Or do we give it back to the hardworking people of Idaho? This article address the issue well.
Choosing between wallets and kids
by John Kotek

Few states have taxes as low as Idaho. Few spend as little money on education. Idaho’s $200 million surplus presents an opportunity to upgrade public schools, writes John Kotek.

Encouraging reports out of Boise show the state of Idaho is in great financial shape, running an estimated $200 million budget surplus. The governor knows what he wants to do with the extra money and has called for property tax relief paid for using both the surplus and an increase in the sales tax. But is this really the best way to invest Idaho’s surplus?

A few months ago, I wrote a column applauding the State Board of Education for trying to improve Idaho’s math and science education. I cited extensively from the report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” by the National Academy of Sciences. The report makes a series of recommendations aimed at “vastly improving K-12 science and mathematics education.”

Recommendations from the report could easily be implemented using part of Idaho’s surplus. For example, to address a chronic shortfall in qualified math and science teachers, the academy proposes establishing four-year teacher scholarships. An Idaho-based program could require a five-year commitment to teaching in Idaho schools after graduation, and could include an extra incentive for teachers willing to serve in rural school districts.

The academy points to statewide specialty high schools as a way to “foster leaders in science, technology and mathematics.” Battelle — the lead contractor for Idaho National Laboratory — is already working with Ohio State University to launch a math- and science-focused high school in Ohio. Wouldn’t now be a great time for the state to approach Battelle about co-funding one or more similar high schools? And given that high-tech jobs are Idaho’s No. 1 source of income — contributing more to Idaho’s economy than agriculture, mining and timber combined — there should be other employers around the state willing to chip in.

I know some of us would like to see the entire surplus returned to the taxpayers. But remember, Idaho already has one of the lowest tax burdens in the U.S. — we were ranked 42nd in overall tax burden by the Tax Foundation. We also spend less on our students than almost any other state — Idaho ranks 47th in spending per pupil. In this low-tax, low-spending environment, our legislators and state officials amassed a $200 million surplus. As a result of their success, we’re presented with a dream scenario — we can invest in our future while still keeping our overall tax burden low.

Although we all like the sound of property tax relief, shifting the burden of school funding from the property tax to the (increased) sales tax doesn’t do anything to improve the quality of Idaho’s schools. In this time of flush state budgets, we should consider investing at least part of Idaho’s surplus in our children and in our future.

Kotek is the former deputy manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho Operations Office. You can write to him at 1025 Thomas Jefferson St. NW, Suite 530 East, Washington, DC 20007.


Chaucer Arafat said...

Nice post Peter. I recently had the opportunity to write a letter to the State Legislature on behalf of a high ranking Battelle (my employer) Official that addressed this issue.

I think Kotek has a solid (although not altogether novel) idea--but vis-a-vis property tax relief, it will prove difficult to enact in such an agrarian state..it always has.


Empty Spaces Inc. said...

throwing money at education hasn't shown to increase the test scores of kids. infact america which spends the highest on education per kid in the western world has the lowest scores.

Anonymous said...

Empty Spaces,

Your point is valid. However, throwing money at anything doesn't seem to make it better. For public education to work it requires a combination of values working in harmony.

However, I'll use Madison County as an example of what I think is happening state wide.

In Madison schools class sizes are too big, and the buildings are literally falling apart. Beyond that, some of the history books still list Bill Clinton as the president.

Money isn't everything, but in Idaho it will help.