by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
The Senate Education Committee introduced a bill Tuesday afternoon that would establish a universal education savings account program and allow parents to access state education funding if they withdraw their children from public schools.
Sen. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, said the bill is modeled after recent school choice legislation in Arizona. She also referenced other states such as Utah, Iowa and Washington that introduced similar proposals this year.
“Many families feel stuck, and that’s not to say we don’t have some excellent schools and educational options that are out there,” Nichols said.
“Universal education choice opens doors and provides opportunities for Idaho students to escape a government education system that is not educating them,” the caucus said in a press release.
The program would require parents to sign an agreement to use the funding “for the qualified student in at least the subjects of reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies, and science,” and to not enroll the student in a public school district or charter school. The Idaho State Department of Education would then “transfer the moneys that would otherwise be allocated to a recipient’s prior school district” into a freedom in education savings account for the child.
Under Nichols’ proposal, each participating student would receive just under $6,000 from their prior school’s maintenance and operations funding. The caucus estimates the entire program would cost $19.4 million in the first year.
“The common principle here is for state money to follow the child and not the school system,” Nichols said. “The goal is that through an ESA, parents will be the ones we empower rather than the unions and education bureaucracies that have dominated school governance and prevented the learning improvement and higher standards that Idaho students desperately need.”
Once assigned a bill number, the legislation must get a public hearing before advancing.
“We’ve tried to set up mechanisms to make sure that there is oversight, because of course this is taxpayer money. We want to use it in the best way possible and make sure it’s being used the correct way,” Nichols told Idaho Reports.
All Republican members of the committee voted to introduce the bill, while Sen. Carrie Semmelroth, D-Boise, abstained and Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, voted against.
“Usually, as a courtesy, I will print a bill,” Ward-Engelking told Idaho Reports. “To me, this is just siphoning off much-needed public funds for public education and turning it over to private religious schools – because once you open it up to a private school, you have to also open it to religious schools.”
“It’s unconstitutional,” Ward-Engelking added. “I took an oath to uphold the constitution less than a month ago.”
The Senate Education Committee printed a resolution Monday that would ask voters to repeal a provision in the Idaho Constitution that forbids public funding to be spent on religious schools. If passed by both the House and Senate, it would appear before voters on the November 2024 ballot.
Logan Finney | Associate Producer
Logan Finney is a North Idaho native with a passion for media production and boring government meetings. He grew up skiing, hunting and hiking in the mountains of Bonner County and has maintained a lifelong interest in the state’s geography, history and politics. Logan joined the Idaho Reports team in 2020 as a legislative session intern and stayed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hired as an associate producer in 2021 and they haven’t been able to get rid of him since.