Monday, July 15, 2024

OPINION: Idaho needs a major reset on education choice conversation

by CHRIS CARGILL/Guest Opinion
| April 7, 2023 1:00 AM

The 2023 Idaho legislative session is ready to adjourn with barely any movement on advancing education choice options for families.

While states including Florida, Iowa, Arkansas, Utah and Arizona have expanded choice to improve outcomes, Idaho seems to be stuck in neutral.

It’s certainly not for lack of trying. An early-session Senate bill that would have provided universal Education Savings Accounts (ESA) for all Idaho families passed in committee but failed on the floor.

An ESA proposal complete with income limitations was introduced in the House. The House Education committee wouldn’t even give it a hearing.

The sponsor came back with another version that was finally granted a hearing in that same committee — but was then shot down before it could get to the floor.

Members in both the House and Senate worked on a bill to expand the state’s popular Empowering Parents program to include a small pilot for just 2,000 students — less than 1% of the state’s total student population. It was a temporary trial with an expiration date. It passed the Senate but, despite having nearly every limitation that opponents had asked for, didn’t have the votes in the House Education committee.

To top it all off, the House Education committee actually passed a bill to place an incomplete advisory question about “funding private schools” on the ballot in 2024. When that proposal got to the House floor, it was defeated providing the opportunity for the legislature to continue a more robust debate in the future.

If you asked all 105 legislators to explain education choice, you might get 105 different answers.

Throughout the session, a lot of bizarre and inaccurate things were said:

CLAIM: These are “ESA vouchers.”

REALITY: There is no such thing. ESA’s allows parents to use a portion of state funding on a variety of education services. Yes, it can include private school tuition, but it can also include tutoring, special needs services, curriculum, mental health treatment and much more - so long as it is for an educational purpose.

CLAIM: Private or specialty school would get taxpayer funding while rejecting students.

REALITY: If that private or specialty school were to receive any of the funding, the student would have to be accepted. The state is not going to just start issuing checks to private schools.

CLAIM: Approving ESA’s would reduce public school funding.

REALITY: In reality, per-student funding would likely increase. Several proposals required 20% of a student’s allocation to stay in the school district in which they lived. The Empowering Parents program was a separate budget item altogether.

CLAIM: 95% of homeschooling students will sign up.

REALITY: There’s no evidence from other states of numbers ever reaching that high.

CLAIM: You can only support public education or education choice.

REALITY: They work hand-in-hand and education choice often supplements public schooling.

CLAIM: The Heritage Foundation says Idaho already has enough education choice.

REALITY: Idaho ranked 20th on education choice options behind Utah & Montana and barely ahead of Illinois.

This legislative session proves the entire conversation in Idaho surrounding education choice needs a major reset — and, ironically, better education about proposals. The advancement of education choice in Idaho is only harmed by those who have relentlessly attacked and sought to close all public schools.

This issue is not going away. If Idaho legislators had known they were not going to be successful with any bill, they could have opted for an interim legislative study on existing ESA programs across the country. This could have been done by an unbiased source — perhaps the state Controller or Legislative Audit Division — and could have been made available by the time the next session begins. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

The conversation will continue now, and Mountain States Policy Center will do our part by providing research and recommendations on what has worked in other states. We’ll even host a special event in Boise over the summer to brainstorm options and highlight areas of success and policies to avoid.

We have a unique opportunity to put political divisions aside and create a unique Idaho centered plan. The goal needs to be the education of Idaho’s children so that they can be productive citizens and workers and lead enriched lives.

If more education choice can help improve the educational outcomes of just one child, it’s worth trying.

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Chris Cargill is the president of Mountain States Policy Center,