Ballot question about funding private education fails in the House

Published: Mar. 21, 2023 at 11:00 PM MDT
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BOISE, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) —Legislation regarding school choice and education savings accounts (ESA) continues to be a divisive topic with Idaho lawmakers, and on Tuesday another bill failed to find a consensus vote.

House Bill 339 failed with 27 in favor and 43 against, with both Republicans and Democrats showing support for the legislation.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Lori McCann aimed to put an advisory question before the voters on the November 2024 ballot, asking if the State of Idaho, the Idaho Legislature, or any state agency direct or appropriate public tax dollars to private K-12 schools, including private religious schools, and for-profit schools.

Numerous bills have been introduced this session relating to the topic, and none them have been able to make it past both chambers of the legislature.

On Tuesday, those in support of the bill felt it would be a good idea to get a “temperature check’ from the public, to see if the public has an appetite for this type of legislation and if it is something lawmakers should continue to pursue.

“I’d like to hear from the million people[Idaho] in November of 2024,” Rep. Chris Mathias said. “Do you think money should come out of the general fund, out of our public coffers, and go to private school tuition? That is a really big policy departure for us, and it would be really helpful to get a policy check from the public.”

Those who opposed the bill felt in part the advisory question was poorly worded, as funds from education savings accounts can be used for other things outside of tuition costs for private and religious schools. In part, an ESA can also be used for homeschooling, tutors and micro-schools, and curriculum, according to legislation introduced earlier this session.

Additionally, some felt the topic of using taxpayer dollars to fund private education through an ESA, or other means, is too complex of an issue to be a ballot question.

“I understand why some us want to go directly to the public and ask them a question. That’s a democracy, but we are a republic. The reason we are a republic is so we can have those discussions, those thoughtful questions, and thoughtful discussions, rather than the knee jerk reaction to tax dollars for private-religious [education],” Rep. Vito Barbieri said. “You know people are going to respond to those emotionally.”

Currently, Sen. Lori Den Hartog has legislation sitting in the House, that proposes to expand the existing Empowering Parents program, by setting aside $12 million per year in state funding for tuition grants.

The bill passed the Senate last week.