Idaho lawmakers on Tuesday narrowly shot down a bill that would create scholarship accounts that families could use for students’ tuition and fees at private grade schools.
The motion to hold the bill in committee passed 8-7 after multiple lawmakers and members of the public raised concerns that it would harm public schools and wasn’t a constitutional use of state dollars.
The bill would have assigned an estimated $12.7 million of Idaho public schools’ budget in the first year for the scholarships. Families with children in kindergarten through 12th grade would have been able to receive about $5,950 in state funds, according to the current estimates. The funds could then be used for expenses including tuition and fees at private schools or non-public online learning systems, certain tutoring services and technology.
Under the bill, parents would have had to apply for the scholarship through the State Department of Education, and promised not to enroll their student in public school during the time they’re receiving the funds.
Parents would have been required to provide their children with an education in reading, language, math, science and social studies and to only use the money in the account for “qualifying expenses.” Families would have needed to meet certain income requirements to be eligible for the scholarship, and had their children enrolled in at least a public school for at least 45 days before applying.
Bill crosses ‘line,’ unconstitutional, lawmaker says
Lawmakers voted not to advance the bill to the House floor after debating for more than an hour Tuesday, and after about two hours of public testimony.
Opponents of the bill raised concerns about its constitutionality and said it could take away certain accountability and oversight of how state funds were being used.
“The constitution in the state of Idaho mandates that the Legislature provided a uniform and thorough system. I’m going to emphasize the word ‘system,’ of public, free, common schools,” said Rep. Gary Marshall, an Idaho Falls Republican. “I think this bill clearly crosses that line into what we would be doing here would be unconstitutional.”
Lawmakers who voted against the bill said they didn’t feel it was ready yet to be presented on the House floor.
Several education groups, including the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Education Association, spoke out against the bill.
Quinn Perry, from the Idaho School Boards Association, said the group has opposed school vouchers for many years and was glad to see the committee not advance the legislation.
One of the biggest reasons for the association’s opposition, she said, was the lack of accountability private schools face, whereas public schools must comply with several requirements and transparency measures. The majority of Idaho school districts are also rural, she said, with few opportunities for private schools outside of the state’s urban areas.
“We strongly believe that our state legislature should remain steadfast in their commitment to public schools,” she told the Idaho Statesman.
Lawmakers who supported the bill said it would have provided parents an option they have long been asking for and created more competition, which they argued would help improve public schools.
“Competition creates excellence,” said Rep. Ron Mendive, a Coeur d’Alene Republican. “We still face competition every day. And we should welcome competition. It would improve the educational situation for all of our students.”
Rep. Judy Boyle, a Midvale Republican, said lawmakers had been continuing the conversation over school choice for years, and it was time to “finally get moving forward.”
“This is a good bill. It will help people no matter where they live. It will help kids. We shouldn’t be afraid of this,” she said. “And again, our public schools can use some competition. It will make them better. Competition makes everything better.”
This story was originally published March 1, 2022 2:11 PM.