Local column: Economic self segregation

Serious underfunding of districts unable to pass bonds does not portend a bright economic future for small town Idaho, writes Jim Delmore.

The recent publicity surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and how he worked to achieve racial and economic equality resonates with problems that persist to this day.

On several occasions this past week I’ve heard the statement, “We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.” For those who have access to quality schools and jobs, this generally holds true. Conversely for those who don’t have access to quality schools and jobs, it’s false.

What is disturbing is to see people of all races undergoing increased economic segregation at an alarming rate. Many whites are finding themselves with the same level of economic segregation that many blacks have always had to live with. There are many factors driving this trend; among them are the trends in many regions to seriously underfund schools, along with greatly increased use of automation.

Underfunding schools and increasing automation are closely intertwined. School systems are having a difficult time with the current funding levels to train young people in the skills that are needed in this “new world.” At the same time, colleges are not training an adequate number of teachers to train the students in the types of skills required. Combined with the serious underfunding of many school districts, this does not portend a bright economic future for underfunded districts.

A big part of this problem in Idaho is that there is a two-thirds majority requirement to pass school bonds. In Idaho, school bonds are all local so one-third of the voters can hold an entire district hostage. Wherever this one-third minority is able to prevail, communities are condemned to a death spiral.

As a consequence local school districts are self-segregating. Local communities able to pass bonds have good schools. Those that can’t pass bonds have poor schools. This, in turn, causes businesses to enhance this self-segregation by locating in the cities that have good schools and infrastructures providing further incentive for young families to move to the more progressive districts. This is what small towns across Idaho and many other states are facing.

One partial answer is to reduce the percentage of the vote required to pass a school bond to 50 percent. Another answer is to comply with the Idaho Constitution by equalizing funding for schools across the state. This will require implementing a state-wide tax rate applied uniformly to all districts and then allocating the money according to the number of students with accommodations for various needs, like increased bussing requirements.

For many small communities, it’s already too late. They are never again going to be able to gather the critical mass required to thrive. Their only hope is to consolidate school districts and hope the roads are adequately maintained for school buses and general transportation needs.

Meanwhile, the Idaho Legislature is so busy cutting taxes and complying with the grandstanding of special interests, they’re too busy to even take a look at the real problems.

The most progressive part of Idaho, Boise, is growing at a rapid rate, followed by several other areas willing and able to pass school bonds while many other areas are falling further behind the rest of the state and nation. To a great extent, these areas have self-selected to have substandard schools that are turning out inadequately trained young men and women who will find it difficult to be competitive in our rapidly evolving world.

With the Idaho Freedom Foundation putting so much money into electing legislators dedicated to forcing failure on the communities that cannot muster a two-thirds majority, the future of small town Idaho looks dim indeed. Perhaps we should call them the “Idaho Freedom to Failure Foundation.”

With their policies to greatly enhance economic segregation, that seems more appropriate.

Delmore is a retired scientist.