Competing school choice bills see different results in committee

Published: Mar. 15, 2023 at 12:44 PM MDT
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BOISE, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) —Legislation relating to school choice is continuing to be introduced in the Idaho State Legislature. Two different bills were discussed Tuesday in education committees, but only one is going to see the light of day, as the other failed to win over lawmakers.

HB289 failed to make it out of the House Education Committee Tuesday morning, as committee members voted 9 to 7 to hold the bill in the House Education Committee.

Rep. Lance Clow’s Idaho Education Opportunity Program (IEOP) would of created educational savings accounts (ESA), where 80 percent of the average per student state funding would have followed the student, and allow families to use the money for things like tuition at a private school or home schooling expenses. However, students would only be able to buy new electronic devices, like laptops, once every five years. The other 20 percent would stay in that child’s’ public school district.

Under the legislation, priority would be given to eligible students from families whose adjusted gross income is less than $70,000 a year, entering the program as a kindergarten student, or have attended an Idaho public school for 90 days in the prior school year.

Clow said according to his numbers the program would cost $17.5 million in the first year, with roughly $13 million following the students. Clow said he estimates 2,000 students would opt-in to the program the first year, and each student would receive $6,795 annually. Additionally, each public school district would receive $1,745 annually.

Additionally, $200,00 would have to be set aside for the Idaho State Department of Education would need to establish staffing to handle the application and approval process.

Like the Freedom in Education Savings Accounts legislation which failed in the Senate, lawmakers brought up concerns over lack of accountability with the bill. However Clow said parents would be held accountable under the legislation, as a parent would need to demonstrate that their child is at grade level, or has shown one full year of academic growth, in order to renew an IEOP account.

However, many of the people who spoke in the public hearing for the bill were in opposition. The House Education Committee also had some mixed feelings about the bill.

Rep. Ron Mendive liked the bill, “This bill simply allows people that can’t afford an alternative, private school for their children, an opportunity to do that. These are tax payers too. they put money in the public system.”

But, Rep. Dan Garner had some concerns, “I have some really misgivings about it. I’m not sure we can sidestep our constitutional reality by sending money to a parent of private education.”


Across the rotunda, Sen. Lori Den Hartog’s legislation saw a more favorable response in the Senate Education Committee, as SB1161 received a “Do Pass” recommendation from the committee, on a 6-3 vote.

Her bill proposes to expand the existing Empowering Parents Program by setting aside $12 million per year in state funding to create a five year pilot program for tuition grant, starting in FY2025. Under the legislation up to 2,000 students per year

Den Hartog said a tuition grant can be used for a private school or for the hiring of a certified teacher for a micro-school. Additionally, the distribution of the tuition grant will be prioritized based on the lowest income applicants receiving the highest priority.

The bill also calls for $30 million in ongoing state funding for micro-grants under the Empowering Parents Program, and to to add transportation to and from school as an allowable expense for the micro-grants ($1,000/student; $3,000 maximum per family).

Over 60 people signed up to testify in the Senate Education Committee for SB1161, and an overwhelming number people spoke in opposition of the bill. Like other school choice legislation that has has been introduced this session, those in opposition are concerned an ESA program will take money away from the public school system and raise tuition cost at private schools. Some on the Senate Education Committee echoed those same concerns.

“90 percent of our state’s counties are voting on supplemental levies. Almost a billion dollars of supplemental levies, because this legislature has failed to fund public schools. now we are considering a bill that will take more funding away from public education, " Sen. Carrie Semmelroth said.

However, Sen Scott Herndon countered by saying, “This appropriation that would be requested under SB1161, does not harm the major increases we have done in spending to public schools budgets that JFAC has approved and will be going to the floor.”

In the end her legislation passed and is now heading to the Senate Floor.

Four of the nine members of the Senate Education Committee are Idaho Freedom Caucus members. The Freedom Caucus has been a strong advocate for universal school choice legislation this session. The fact that Den Hartog’s legislation was heard in the Senate Education Committee might explain why her legislation passed though committee, in the face of overwhelming public opposition.

Sen. Tammy Nichols and Sen. Brian Lenney were the sponsors of the Freedom in Education Savings Accounts legislation, which failed in the Senate. Both sit of the Senate Education Committee