Legislative leaders are questioning the decision of 20 mostly small school districts to launch a court battle aimed at forcing the state to cough up more money for public education.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem Michael Crapo of Idaho Falls and GOP House Speaker Tom Boyd of Genesee maintained the Legislature has done a good job underwriting public schools, considering the state's financial situation.Both warned that a successful effort to force even higher state support, now totaling more than half of all general tax spending, could mean an end to local control of the schools.
"If they do want more of the funding from the state, they will have to accept more control from the state," Boyd said on Friday. "I don't know if they want that."
In a civil suit filed last Thursday in 2nd District Court in Moscow, the coalition of school districts, led by the Moscow district under the banner of Idaho Schools For Equal Educational Opportunity, asked the court to declare the current level of state aid so inadequate that it denies Idaho children their state constitutional guarantee to a "thorough" education.
The suit is intended to force Gov. Cecil Andrus, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jerry Evans, the state Board of Education and the Legislature - all of whom are named as defendants - to significantly boost funding for all of Idaho's 115 school districts.
"It will force the Legislature to take a real strong look at what we are doing in Idaho education," said Dick Peters, superintendent of the Cambridge School District.
Boyd speculated that the suit was filed to head off the possibility of a second suit by larger districts, challenging the formula the state uses to distribute what will be $450.1 million in state aid in the coming year.
"Our position is that the present funding formula is basically fair, the only problem is there isn't enough funds to go around," Peters said.
Crapo agreed that the state needs to continue increasing its support for education but he rejected the contention that past efforts have been inadequate. As a lawyer, he also questioned the legal basis for the suit when education support comes from a combination of state aid and local property taxes, which are controlled by the individual district patrons.
But state Board of Education President Gary Fay of Twin Falls maintained the Legislature's attitude toward underwriting all state operations, including education, brought the issue to a head.
While acknowledging that there is a limit to the resources that can be diverted to education, Fay suggested it has yet to be reached.