by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
The Senate Education Committee heard lengthy testimony on Tuesday about a bill that would establish a universal education savings account program in Idaho.
Sen. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, and Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa, presented the bill, which would allow parents of K-12 students not enrolled in the public school system to access state education funding.
“ESAs provide families with greater opportunities and choices,” Nichols said. “Children should not be put in a box, because one size doesn’t fit all.”
The bill would direct the State Department of Education to oversee and establish rules for the program. Individual education savings accounts would be managed through an online portal where parents could select from education service providers. The sponsors estimate it would cost $45 million in the first year.
Nichols compared the concept to a health savings account program, in which individuals do not directly access HSA funds but are able to spend them on a certain category of expenses.
“No one actually touches the money except the state,” Nichols said.
Lawmakers heard two hours of testimony on the bill, with supporters saying public schools have failed their families, while opponents said the state has neglected its duty to fully fund public education.
“It will drain funding from public schools,” said Genessee resident Heather Stout. “There is no other school – private or otherwise – in our area. If this bill goes forward, it will decimate small rural communities like mine.”
Others said they have no problem with private schools, but are against them receiving public funding.
“I don’t want to fund private education,” said Boise resident Elizabeth Noonan. “I went through private education. My parents paid for it.”
Opponents also raised issues with accountability and the minimal standards for education providers who would accept education savings account funds.
“I would have no idea what is being taught down the street from my house,” said Norma Staaf of Idaho County.
Supporters of the bill, on the other hand, saw that as a benefit.
“I love that this bill trusts me to know what’s best for my children,” said Summer Bushnell of Post Falls.
Deseret Study Abroad Academy head teacher Jason Richardson agreed.
“In my experience, parents are much more demanding of my teaching than the public schools,” Richardson said.
Other supporters argued that more school choice options would incentivize public schools to improve.
“Idaho is ready for a market-driven, competition-oriented education strategy,” said Tom Harrison of Idaho Falls.
After two hours, committee chairman Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, estimated that more than 70 people were still signed up to testify. The committee will reconvene at 3 p.m. on Wednesday to hear more public testimony and possibly vote on the bill.
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.