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Despite Idaho's many attributes, it ranks at the bottom (or top) of several unflattering lists. The Idaho Press-Tribune news team examined the reasons behind these rankings and visited with state departments and nonprofit organizations to determine what is being done to improve the Gem State.




Rankings out of 50 states

Average per-pupil spending: 49

Salary of classroom teachers: 42

College enrollment after HS: 47

College graduation rates: 44

Attainment of BA degree (age 25 or older): 40

Attainment of advanced degree: 42

- (From the National Center for Education Statistics

and the U.S. Census Bureau)


The JA and Kathryn Albertson Foundation has invested about $400 million in Idaho's education system including the "Go On" campaign, which aims to increase college enrollment and graduation rates. We asked the Albertson Foundation: Why does Idaho have such low post-secondary rankings?

Lack of preparation and rigorous coursework

Lack of access and support for parents and students, including mentoring and help with financial applications

Lack of affordable and flexible options in things like tuition costs or course schedules

Lack of revelance: Parents and students aren't making the connection about why higher education matters

Lack of alignment and connectedness from grades K-12 and beyond

Current funding is based on participation rather than student progress.

There's resistance to new methods, change is not incentivized

Idaho ranks toward the bottom in several academic categories. It's second-to-last in spending per pupil, for example, while it's 47th in the percent of students who attend college after graduating from high school.

Penni Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association teachers' union, points to a "disinvestment" in education in Idaho. She argues that state cuts of about a quarter-billion dollars from the K-12 education budgets in recent years have harmed schools, teachers and students.

During the 1980s and 90s, Idaho invested about 4.5 percent of its budget in K-12 education, Cyr said, citing statistics from former state chief economist Mike Ferguson.

"But we now invest 20 percent less than that, about 3.5 percent. What we've seen is a continual disinvestment in education over the past decade," Cyr said.

State Superintendent Tom Luna disagrees that a lack of funding is to blame for the state's low standing in college enrollment and graduation.

"There's always areas where we could spend more money," Luna said. "But this myopic focus on revenue as silver bullet doesn't hold water."

About 92 percent of Idaho high school students graduate, he notes, but fewer than half of those go on to post-secondary education; of those who do attend college or vocational training, 40 percent will need remedial assistance and 38 percent will not return for a second year.


Luna points to cultural, financial and educational hurdles that prevent students from thriving in post-secondary education. The Albertson Foundation's "Go On" campaign is working to help students and parents see the importance and financial feasibility of post-secondary education, he said.

Meanwhile the state Department of Education's "Students Come First" education reforms will help better prepare students academically, Luna said. In particular, the reforms aim to improve the quality of teaching in Idaho.

Students Come First institutes merit pay for teachers. Those who raise their students' test scores, take leadership roles or teach high-need areas could be eligible for up to $8,000 in yearly bonuses.

"The most important factor is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. We will reward good teaching and deal effectively with poor teaching," he said.

Cyr, though, argues that Luna's education mandates take money away from cash-strapped school districts. Money spent on pay-for-performance merit pay and online classes, for example, could be better spent on teacher salaries, reducing class size and classroom supplies, she said.

Idaho also needs to make a greater investment in higher education, Cyr said.

"Idaho can tell students to ‘Go On,' but that doesn't erase the fact that Idaho has disinvested in its public universities over the past decade, too, pushing an ever-higher share of college costs onto families," she said.


Health Care


Breast cancer screenings

Rank: 51/51 for lowest rate. Idaho's screening rate of women older than 40 is 64 percent, compared to a national average of 76 percent.

Reasons: Lack of health insurance, fewer health care options in rural areas and confusion among women in their forties about mammogram recommendations, said Susan Bordeaux, clinical coordinator with Women's Health Check.

Solutions: Mobile mammography visits rural areas; federally-funded Idaho Women's Health Check offers free screenings; organizations like the Power of Pink and local hospitals raise funds and awareness. Women can find more resources by visiting or calling 211, the Idaho CareLine.

Health care professionals


Physicians in patient care: 163 per 100,000 people. National rate: 241 per 100,000. Idaho rank: 49.

Physicians in primary care: 69 per 100,000 people. National rate: 98 per 100,000. Idaho rank: 48.

Physicians in psychiatry: 5 per 100,000 people. National rate is 13 per 100,000. Idaho rank: 50.

Reasons: The training of physicians in Idaho didn't keep up with the population boom over the last 10 years, Idaho Medical Association Chief Executive Officer Susie Pouliot said. Idaho does not have its own medical school, but partners with universities in neighboring states. Funding to create more physician training programs is limited, especially in this economic climate, she said.

Solutions: Strive to increase number of spots for Idaho students in the University of Washington School of Medicine affiliate program, create more residency programs in Idaho, look into establishing a medical school in Idaho.


Rank: 7th for highest incidence rate, 14th for highest death rate (2003-2007).

Reasons: "We have a large majority of Caucasian population," said Patti Moran, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Comprehensive Cancer Control program manager. "Our outdoor lifestyle probably contributes as well." Indoor tanning, specifically among teenage girls, is also a problem, she said, increasing one's risk for developing melanoma by 75 percent (World Health Organization).

Solutions: Address skin cancer prevention and early detection, including Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) programs that span all ages.


Rank: 11th highest suicide rate (2007). More than 300 people completed suicide in 2009 - about 20 suicides per every 100,000 people. From 2007-2009, Idaho suicide completions increased by 40 percent.

Reasons: Lack of access to affordable, effective mental health care, a culture of rugged individualism that might hinder help-seeking, a high percentage of gun-owning households, said Kim Kane, Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho executive director. Idahoans can call a national lifeline, but Idaho is the only state without its own suicide prevention hotline.

Solutions: Establish a suicide prevention hotline in Idaho, educate people about warning signs, reduce stigma.

Child immunizations

Rank: 10th lowest coverage rate (66.3 percent) for children ages 19-35 months who receive recommended immunizations.

Reasons: Culture may be a factor: Western states have historically low immunization rates. "There's a group of people who don't believe immunizations are a good thing," said Andy Noble with the Idaho Immunization Program. Cost is not an issue, he said, because standard immunizations are covered by the government.

Solutions: Health departments and community organizations promote vaccines to parents. Idaho health insurers partner with the state to purchase vaccines. Lawmakers approved legislation to improve state's system to document administered vaccines and remind parents of necessary immunizations.

Adult pneumonia vaccinations

Rank: Tied at 14th for lowest rate. About 35 percent of adults 65 and older in Idaho have not been vaccinated against pneumonia (2010). It's recommended that adults older than 65 are immunized.

Reasons: Limited access, lack of insurance and misunderstanding about the vaccination.

Solutions: Increase public education about vaccinations and promote insurance coverage.

- Sources: Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, Women's Health Check, Cancer Data Registry of Idaho, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,


Median Household Income

Rank: 42

Idaho is among the bottom 10 states for average personal and household income, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. According to Bob Fick of the Idaho Department of Labor, low education levels are largely to blame - but it goes deeper than that. Even jobs requiring specific qualifications pay less in Idaho than most other states.

"We're a low-wage state," Fick said. "We're always at the bottom on those."

Because Idaho ranks low in number of people with college degrees, Fick explained, academically qualified applications often aren't available for jobs that would typically require them. In such cases, an employer will sometimes hire based on experience, and then discount their pay.

"You have people who end up taking jobs at a lower rate, because they don't have a master's degree or bachelor's degree," he said. "They have five or 10 years experience doing something similar."

But even professionals with advanced degrees make less money here than in other states, Fick said. Idaho's average wage is about 76 percent of the nation average, he continued, down from the high 80 percent range in the 1960s and 70s.

Nonetheless, he said he's not worried about a "brain drain" - a phenomenon in which education professionals leave the state - because things aren't much better anywhere else.

Gender Wage Gap

Rank: 36

Idaho women working full-time, year-round jobs in Idaho earn 78 percent of their male counterparts' income, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, placing near the bottom compared to other states. This has remained relatively constant over time, Fick explained - although average income has gone down during the recent recession, incomes for both men and women have dropped at the same rate.

It also varies from industry to industry, Fick explained. The health care field has among the widest disparities, he said, not because women are paid less for the same job, but because nurses are more often women while most doctors are men. The gap is considerably narrower, he said, in mining and construction, and narrower still in hospitality and service jobs.

"At least some of the discrepancy is because of women's work history," Fick said. "Today it's not as prevalent, but in decades past, you had women that would take off years to raise kids, and then get back into the labor force. Without a job history and current skills, they're obviously going to have to take a lower-paying job."

Increase in Families on Food Stamps

Rank: 18

The number of people on government nutritional assistance programs has increased faster in Idaho than elsewhere in the country, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, although the total percentage of families receiving assistance is 14.5 percent - close to the national average of 14.3 percent, and safely within the middle of the pack compared to other states. The sluggish economy is primarily to blame for this, Fick speculated, although the number may be artificially inflated by Idaho's traditionally low food stamp usage. Many Idahoan families that may have qualified for nutritional assistance in the past never applied, but with more applications than available jobs in the state, more Idahoans are looking for help anywhere they can get it.

"We have 1,600 job openings in our system today, statewide," Fick said. "And there's 65,000 people that are unemployed, 7,000 who dropped out, 40,000 working part-time. So there's a lot of competition for the handful of jobs that are out there."

- Sources: United States Census Bureau, United States Department of Agriculture

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