$1.4B surplus is Idaho’s ‘historic opportunity’ to fund education, build skilled workforce

All or any combination of these investments would save millions of dollars on student remediation, incarceration, and social programs, writes guest columnist Rod Gramer.

September 2, 2021 4:01 am
Empty university lecture hall

Idaho is sitting on a $1.4 billion-surplus and it has a historic opportunity to invest that money to create greater prosperity for this and future generations of Idahoans, writes guest columnist Rod Gramer. (Courtesy of Pixabay)

What if one of Idaho’s companies received a $1.4 billion windfall? Many business leaders would invest it to make their companies more profitable for years to come.

Well, Idaho is sitting on a $1.4 billion-surplus, and it has a historic opportunity to invest that money to create greater prosperity for this and future generations of Idahoans. 

There are several ways the governor and Legislature could put this surplus to work for Idahoans, especially our young people. 

They could start by creating state-supported, voluntary early learning programs to get 4-year-olds ready for kindergarten. Currently, nearly six out of 10 incoming kindergarten students are not ready to learn how to read. This would also remove the stigma of Idaho being one of only four states offering no support for early learning. 

They could make full-day kindergarten available to every student in Idaho. Currently, full-day kindergarten is only available where patrons tax themselves, parents can pay tuition or in charter schools where it’s funded by philanthropy. The State Board of Education estimates this could cost $42 million; a small sum compared to the size of the surplus.  

We could help close the achievement gap by putting AVID in every low-income school. There is empirical evidence that this program changes lives by preparing students for college and careers. In one school district, 91 percent of the seniors participating in AVID plan to attend college, far more than the state average. 

But the biggest obstacle to attending college is money. Let’s use the surplus to create an Opportunity Scholarship Endowment to help thousands of students attend college or technical school. The state benefits because workers with a postsecondary credential earn $1 million more over a lifetime than those with a high school diploma.   

The digital divide that creates an academic disadvantage for thousands of students could be closed if we spent part of the surplus creating an endowed Student Technology Fund to buy and replace technology in our schools. 

Our students face a mental health crisis. We could use surplus dollars to hire more school mental health professionals and get students the help they need. 

We could use surplus dollars to help students recover academically from the COVID-19 crisis. This recovery won’t be cheap and won’t happen overnight.

McKinsey and Company reports: “The fallout from the pandemic threatens to depress this generation’s prospects and constrict their opportunities far into adulthood. The ripple effects may undermine their chances of attending college and ultimately finding a fulfilling job that enables them to support a family.”

McKinsey says the hit on the U.S. economy could range from $128 billion to $188 billion every year as the current cohort of students enter the workforce. Clearly, Idaho must invest in a recovery plan, or our economy will suffer the consequences.  

Idaho has a chronic shortage of skilled workers to support our businesses, a problem that accelerated during the pandemic with thousands of women leaving the workforce to care for their children. Even before COVID, Idaho was losing $65 million a year in tax revenue and businesses lost $414 million a year because of child-care related absences and turnover, according to a report by the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry and the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children. 

We could use the surplus to create a Child Care Tax Credit to help working families afford quality care so more parents can return to work. The state could incentivize companies to offer child-care assistance, like other employee benefits like 401K accounts.

A 2018 study conducted by HP, Inc. and Idaho Business for Education showed that Idaho ranks 48th in the country in receipt of federal research grants. We could use the surplus to attract and keep world-class researchers at our universities and use their research dollars to develop patents and marketable products to launch new companies and jobs. Utah made such an investment years ago, and it helped fuel the “Silicon Slope.”

I hear the argument that we can’t use surplus money for ongoing programs. Some of these ideas only require one-time funding. Besides, for years Idaho has run budget surpluses and policymakers have never shied away from committing surplus dollars for pet projects.

All or any combination of these investments would save millions of dollars on student remediation, incarceration, and social programs. A more educated citizenry would also pay substantially more in taxes, making these investments pay for themselves.

Stephen Covey once wrote that humans create things twice – first with our mind and then in reality. The question is whether policymakers have the vision to see how these investments can transform our state and whether they have the political will to grab this historic opportunity.

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Rod Gramer
Rod Gramer

Rod Gramer is the president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, a group of nearly 250 businesses across the Gem State. IBE advocates for state policy that contributes to an educated and skilled workforce to build upon and support the state's economy.