Idaho lawmakers debate proposed school choice legislation

A group of Republican lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation this session that will open the door for universal school choice in Idaho.
Published: Jan. 18, 2023 at 9:50 AM MST
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BOISE, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) —The legislation has not even been introduced in committee yet, and it is already creating headlines. A group of Republican lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation this session that will open the door for universal school choice in Idaho, and allow public education dollars to follow the students and not the public education institutions.

Here in the Magic Valley Twin Falls Christian Academy is home to roughly 190 students, K12. School Administrator Brent Walker said the school offers a choice for families who want a school curriculum based on religious principles.

“Then they like the smaller classrooms. The atmosphere that the Christ Center curriculum creates,” Walker said.

Additionally, he said some students and parents like private and religious schools because they don’t have cliques. At non-public schools some students feel like they don’t have to worry about being pressured into joining a social group that doesn’t share their same values, or be judged for their values.

He added tuition typically runs around $390 a month per child, with discounted amounts for a 2nd and 3rd child. Walker said there would be no charge for a family that wanted to enroll a 4th child. He added one of the most common misconceptions about private and religious schools is they are for the wealthy.

“The overwhelming majority of our folks are middle income, where they just make sacrifices to put the kids in school”

However, not all families have the resources to send their children to the schools of their choice. Others just want to have more control over their children’s education. To offer parents more options, Republican Sen. Tammy Nichols and other conservative lawmakers plan to introduce an Education Freedom Bill this session. It will pave the way to an Education Savings Account of roughly $6,000 per child.

“One of the other myths we hear, ‘We already have school choice in the State of Idaho’,” said Nichols. “We have limited school choice, and it is not universal by any means.”

However, Gov. Little doesn’t seem to agree with Nichols. When recently asked about school choice the Governor said, “Right here in the Magic Valley we have a robust charter school system. In fact, if you don’t like the school you are going to, you can go somewhere else. These other states you are locked into your neighborhood. If you have a bad school in that neighborhood you can’t do anything.”

As part of his Idaho First plan, the Governor is proposing to invest $30 million in the state’s Empowering Parents Grants to assist parents with their children’s educational needs. But Sen. Brian Lenney points out the state’s Empowering Parents Grant is limited. The grants prioritize families earning less than $60,000 a year, and funds can not be used for tuition. Additionally grants are only up to $3,000.

“It’s only empowering for some parents. Where a true universal savings account model is for everyone. It’s for everyone who wants it.”

Nichols added school choice is often limited to public schools, charter schools, religious schools, or home schooling. She said with an Educational Savings Account parents have more options. For example she said under the system parents could pool their money together and hire a private instructor for their children.

Additionally, she said funds would rollover from year to year, and funds would be audited to see that they are being utilized correctly.

Democratic Sen. Jani Ward- Engleking said she has some issues with the proposed legislation.

“It simply takes public money and sends it to private and religious schools, and that is unconstitutional according to the Idaho State Constitution,” Ward-Engleking said.

Article 9 Section 5 of Idaho Code states:

Neither the legislature nor any county, city, town, township, school district, or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian or religious society, or for any sectarian or religious purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church, sectarian or religious denomination whatsoever; nor shall any grant or donation of land, money or other personal property ever be made by the state, or any such public corporation, to any church or for any sectarian or religious purpose; provided, however, that a health facilities authority, as specifically authorized and empowered by law, may finance or refinance any private, not for profit, health facilities owned or operated by any church or sectarian religious society, through loans, leases, or other transactions.

Additionally she said the proposed legislation could cause Idaho’s public education budget to inflate to a historic level, with funds now being siphoned away from the public schools.

“If one child goes to a private school you still need to have a teacher in the classroom . They still need to have the lights on, so the cost doesn’t go down,” Ward-Engleking said.

Democratic Rep. James Ruchti added he also believes an Educational Saving Account could have a detrimental impact on the public education system. He looks at what has happened in other states with voucher programs, and how their public education budgets have ballooned.

“You can look at Indiana. You can look at Nevada. You can look at other states that have gone down this path. I think if you have a serious conversation with people in those states about what they see, they will tell you it was a mistake to get on that voucher path,” Ruchti said.

However, Sen. Lenney doesn’t see it that way, as only 1% of families would be likely to use the savings accounts in the first year.

“$20 million for year one. $20 million is less than 1% of our total education budget,” Lenney said.

The legislation has not been introduced to the Senate Education Committee yet. However, until then Walker said he can see both sides to the argument. He said he can see how the legislation could possibly hurt public schools, but he also see’s how it gives parents more control over how public education dollars are spent.

“A tax paying parent would rather have those monies go to some other institution and the institution were willing to accept their child, than maybe they should have the freedom to do that,” Walker said.