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Idaho public schools budget to fund laptop program

Legislative budget writers have voted to increase state support for public schools by 4.6 percent in 2013, bumping up the minimum teacher salary by $500 a year and funding education reforms approved during last year’s session, including a statewide laptop program.

The plan would more than offset a nearly $50 million cut to public schools in the current fiscal year while restructuring how Idaho’s education money is spent to fund the reforms.

The public education budget for next year is more than $1.56 billion,  including both state and federal funding. The plan includes $1.27 billion in state general funding, for an increase of about $56 million over this fiscal year, when schools took a $47 million hit.

While the budget includes a 4.6 percent jump in state general funding, the overall increase is much smaller, at 0.4 percent, which Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna attributed to a loss in federal stimulus funds.

Idaho is phasing in mobile computers for every high school teacher and student under the reforms Luna crafted. The program starts this fall, with teachers getting the computers first, along with training.

The public schools budget approved March 5 by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee includes more than $2.5 million for laptops in 2013. It also puts $38 million toward a merit pay plan, which allows teachers to earn bonuses for raising student achievement and taking on hard-to-fill positions or leadership roles.

“I am very pleased with this budget,” Luna said.

The spending plan does not, however, shift money from teacher salaries to help pay for the education changes as envisioned under Luna’s reform plan.

Luna proposed using additional state revenues to offset a $19.4 million reduction to salaries in 2013 under the reforms. But legislation approved by the Idaho Senate would eliminate the salary reductions, leaving lawmakers to find the money for new technology and teacher merit pay bonuses.

The bill to reverse $34 million in salary cuts over the next five years is awaiting a hearing in the Idaho House. Republican Rep. Fred Wood of Burley urged lawmakers on the House Education Committee to act on the measure as soon as possible, given that the public schools budget was written with the legislation in mind.

Teachers will see a 6 percent increase in overall compensation under the budget for next year, Luna said.

He predicts 85 percent of teachers will earn some form of a merit pay bonus next year. He also estimated about 31 percent of teachers will benefit from the boost in their minimum salary, which will rise from $30,000 a year to $30,500 a year.

Not everyone agreed, however, on how best to reward teachers given the increased money for public schools.

Democrats on the budget writing committee wanted to make up for the past freezing of a salary grid by increasing teacher pay based on years of service. But their proposals failed to win over the Republican-dominated panel.

The public schools budget still needs approval from the House and Senate.

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