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OPINION: Proposal for advisory vote on 'private schools' won’t provide good data

by CHRIS CARGILL/Guest Opinion
| March 22, 2023 1:00 AM

The legislature exists to make the best policies for sometimes complex issues while representing the will of the people. This is why detailed bills go through a public hearing, committee markup, floor debate and amendments before passage and starting the process over again in the other house.

What doesn’t happen in the legislature is a one-sentence bill asking simplistic questions for important policy with many interconnecting parts.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what “advisory votes” can often be.

If lawmakers want to really know what voters think about a particular proposal they should put the actual policy on the ballot, with all the details, in a binding referendum, not ask voters to weigh in on a one sentence sound bite without the details of what is on the table.

If lawmakers are uncertain about a particular policy, rather than use an incomplete advisory vote, they can further study the question using actual facts and data to help inform the public debate at a future time.

This is why lawmakers should avoid an advisory vote concerning the current debate on Education Savings Accounts and instead continue the detailed, public, and deliberative legislative process on the various proposals and examples of this educational choice policy from across the country.

Idaho lawmakers voted to advance a bill that would place an advisory measure on the Idaho ballot in 2024 asking voters “should the state of Idaho direct or appropriate public tax dollars to private schools?”

Pretty simplistic — and an incomplete picture to paint for voters about education choice options.

Some lawmakers still appear to be confused about what an ESA is. Throughout hearings over the past 10 days, they continually referred to education choice legislation as “ESA vouchers.” The problem is there’s no such thing as an “ESA voucher.”

Most of the Idaho legislative session has featured debates about Education Savings Accounts — not vouchers. And they are very different.

An ESA 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.

So why not a ballot measure about tutoring, or special needs services, curriculum or mental health treatment? Maybe there should be a question about funding students, instead of funding a system?

Most of the proposals have suggested creating a separate budget item to fund an ESA. And, if approved, the per-student funding in public schools would likely increase, as proposals have included 20% of a student’s funds being put into the local school district — even if students don’t go there.

Should we ask whether voters want to increase the per-student funding — without any context?

Instead of placing a simplistic question on the ballot this fall, legislators should opt for an interim legislative study on existing ESA programs across the country. This could be done by an unbiased source — perhaps the state controller or Legislative Audit Division — and could be available by the time the next session begins. Lawmakers could make their request specific — getting much-needed answers to questions that could determine a way forward for education choice in Idaho.

The bill has been advanced to the full House, which is likely to consider it this week. That is a bit ironic considering lawmakers in the same committee refused a hearing on a bill that would have allowed Education Savings Accounts. But that was before they actually decided to hear the bill — and vote it down — about a week later.

See, context does matter.

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Chris Cargill is the president and CEO of Mountain States Policy Center. Online at mountainstatespolicy.org.