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Idaho has chance for historic investment in education

by ROD GRAMER Contributing Writer
| September 19, 2021 1:00 AM

What would Idaho’s companies do if they had a $1.4 billion windfall? Many would invest it to make their company 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 lawmakers could put this surplus to work for our students.

They could start by supporting 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.

They could make full-day kindergarten available. Now full-day kindergarten is only available where patrons tax themselves, parents can afford tuition or where philanthropy helps.

Money is the biggest obstacle for students to attend college. 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 only high school graduates.

The digital divide that creates an academic disadvantage for thousands of students could be closed if we created an endowed Student Technology Fund.

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

We should use surplus dollars to help students recover academically from the COVID crisis. This won’t be cheap or take just one year.

McKinsey and Company reports: “The fallout from the pandemic threatens to depress this generation’s prospects and constrict their opportunities far into adulthood.”

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, a problem that accelerated during the pandemic with many women leaving the workforce. Even before COVID, Idaho and its businesses were losing millions of dollars because of the lack of childcare, a report from the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry and Idaho Association of Young Children shows.

We could use the surplus to create a Child Care Tax Credit that helps working families afford quality childcare. Or incentivize companies to help provide childcare for their employees.

I hear the argument: we can’t use surplus money for ongoing programs. Some investments only require one-time money. Besides, Idaho has run regular budget surpluses and policymakers have not shied away from using surplus dollars for favorite projects.

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.

The question is do policymakers have the vision to see how these investments can transform Idaho and will they grab this historic opportunity?

Rod Gramer is president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education.