Idaho has an historic $1.6 billion revenue surplus, much of which can and should be used to finally satisfy the Legislature’s constitutional duty to provide adequate funding for Idaho’s public school system. Article IX, Section 1 of the Idaho Constitution commands that “it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform, and thorough system of public, free common schools.” This is one of the most important responsibilities of the State.
The Idaho Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that these are not idle words. Rather, the Legislature must provide sufficient funding to properly operate our public school system. There can be no argument that the Legislature has failed to carry out this solemn obligation for many years. The issue was considered by the Supreme Court in a long-running case, titled Idaho Schools for Equal Educational Opportunity v. State, often referred to as the ISEEO case. The case was filed in 1990 and came before the Court on five occasions, producing five decisions.
In its second decision in 1996, the Court suspected that the State was not adequately funding the instructional side of the education system and sent the case back to the trial court for further consideration of that issue. The Legislature did increase school funding for a while but that did not last long.
In the third round of the litigation, the focus became the proper meaning of a “thorough system” of public schools. The Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that “a safe environment conducive to learning is inherently part of a thorough system of public, free common schools.” The Court said that further litigation was necessary to decide whether school facilities — buildings and fixtures — were being adequately financed by the State. The case was sent back to the trial court to find whether dilapidated school facilities were harming the work of educating our kids.
When the case came back in its fifth iteration in 2005, the Court ruled that the Legislature had not met its constitutional duty to provide a thorough system of education with regard to school facilities. The ruling specified, “it is the duty of the State, and not this Court or the local school districts, to meet this constitutional mandate.” It was made clear that the Legislature could not place the primary funding responsibility for school facilities upon local property tax payers. The Court approvingly quoted an Ohio Supreme Court decision for the proposition that property taxes are not the answer for satisfying the constitutional mandate: “The valuation of local property has no connection whatsoever to the actual education needs of the locality, with the result that a system over reliant on local property taxes is by its very nature an arbitrary system that can never be totally thorough.”
In a special session of the Legislature in 2006, legislation proposed by then-Gov. Jim Risch was approved to reduce reliance on property taxes and shift the burden to sales and income taxes. In the past 10 years, the burden on property tax payers has substantially increased because the Legislature has failed to carry out its responsibility to provide adequate funding for either school facilities or instructional operations. Supplemental property tax levies amounted to $218.2 million in 2021-22. Plant facilities levies were about $53 million last year and may well be more this year. These are obligations that the Legislature should pay out of general tax revenues. Local property tax payers should not be saddled with these costs.
The Legislature is clearly shirking its constitutional duty to provide a thorough system of public schools. Ever since the deep recession of 2008, public leaders, including former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and any number of legislators, have admitted this to be the case. Instead of falling all over themselves to figure out how many hundreds of millions of the present surplus should be dished out in tax cuts, legislators should finally take the opportunity to meet their constitutional duty of adequately funding public school operations and facilities. We clearly have the money so let’s require the legislators to carry out their responsibility under the Idaho Constitution. Our kids’ education depends on it.
Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served 8 years as Idaho Attorney General (1983-1991) and 12 years as Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017). He is currently a regular contributor to The Hill online news. He blogs at JJCommonTater.