You’ve probably heard the claim: “Idaho is the worst in the nation for education.”
But what if it’s really one of the best?
It all depends on what you’re measuring.
Earlier this year, the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers union, ranked Idaho last in the nation for per-pupil spending. Scholaroo ranked Idaho the 39th public school system in the nation for school quality.
The problem with these rankings is that they focus on inputs rather than outputs. The NEA only looks at inputs (spending). And while Scholaroo considers measures of school quality, their rankings are nevertheless distorted by the faulty assumption that higher spending is a proxy for better quality.
If two states’ school systems had the same level of achievement, but one state spent twice as much, Scholaroo would reward the bigger-spending state with a higher rank. This effectively penalizes the state with the more efficient school system. Shouldn’t rankings reward states that are better stewards of the taxpayers’ money?
That’s the thinking behind the Heritage Foundation’s new Education Freedom Report Card—a survey of all 50 states in the areas of education choice, academic transparency, regulatory freedom for schools, and return on investment for taxpayer spending on education.
Heritage ranks Idaho third in the nation for education freedom overall and first for return on investment.
Idaho taxpayers will be glad to know they’re getting bang for their buck. Policymakers have kept spending under control while schools have produced solid results. Idaho ranks 11th nationwide in its combined average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests for fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading.
Idaho also excels at academic transparency, ranking fourth in the nation. This demonstrates that Idaho policymakers trust parents to hold schools accountable. Scholaroo, by contrast, substitutes its expert judgment for that of parents when it rewards states for teaching children about sexual orientation and gender identity, even though two-thirds of parents would prefer that subject be taught at home.
In 2021, state lawmakers adopted a proposal that rejects critical race theory and says school officials cannot “compel” or force students to adopt the theory’s racially discriminatory perspective. The proposal reaffirms the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a key federal law protecting individuals from prejudice.
The Heritage and Scholaroo rankings also take a different approach to regulations. For example, Scholaroo rewards states that erect needless barriers to those wishing to teach, but studies have found no difference in effectiveness among teachers who were traditionally certified, alternatively certified, or not certified at all. The Heritage rankings therefore reward states that make it easier for aspiring teachers to enter the profession.
Heritage ranks Idaho 21st in the nation for regulatory freedom, meaning it does fairly well at respecting school autonomy and minimizing red tape, but could do better. Idaho provides several pathways for teachers to obtain certification, but it could do more to expand them or, better yet, end certification requirements altogether. At the very least, Idaho should allow full reciprocity of teacher licensure with other states.
Idaho could also improve its ranking by exiting the Common Core tests.
At the core of education freedom is the ability of families to choose the schools that work best for their children, yet rankings like Scholaroo don’t factor this in at all.
Heritage ranks Idaho 20th in the nation for providing education choice. Idaho does well in allowing parents to choose among charter and district schools and respects the autonomy of homeschooling families. However, the state lacks any private education choice policies.
Studies find that private school choice policies result in higher levels of achievement and school attainment, greater civic participation and tolerance, and lower levels of crime. Choice policies even benefit students who remain in the district school system. Of 28 studies of the effects of education choice policies on the performance of district schools, 25 found statistically significant positive effects.
Idaho could improve its ranking by enacting a K-12 education savings account (ESA) policy that would empower families to choose the learning environments that work best for their children. In states like Arizona and West Virginia, families use ESAs for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online classes, special-needs therapy, and more. ESAs give families the freedom and flexibility to customize their child’s education.
Taxpayers should know that Washington has spent some $200 billion of their money on COVID relief bills for education, yet the latest results from the Nation’s Report Card find that some students have regressed decades. Lesson for lawmakers: How much money goes in the schoolhouse door does not determine the quality of what comes out.
This piece originally appeared in the Idaho Statesman