by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
The Senate Education Committee approved a controversial school choice bill Wednesday evening, following two days of passionate testimony from all over Idaho on either side of the issue.
The bill would allow parents of K-12 students not enrolled in the public school system to access state education funding. Idahoans spoke in person and remotely from all regions of the state – and sentiment toward the bill did not align neatly with whether they spoke from a large city or a small rural town.
Over 40 people testified Tuesday, touching on desires for education innovation and flexibility, concerns about content and morality, and whether the program would harm K-12 public schools. Those themes carried through the second meeting on Wednesday. Committee chairman Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, reduced speaking time to one minute per person about an hour into each hearing.
Under the bill, the Idaho State Department of Education would set rules and oversee details of the program, such as reviewing and approving applications. The department would deposit 80% of what it provides per student to school districts – a sum of about $5,950 this year – in quarterly installments to an education savings account, which would likely be managed through a third-party digital platform.
The bill sponsors Sen. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, and Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa, stressed in their opening presentation that the program leaves 20% of state funding with the school and leaves federal and local funding intact.
“Money going to a private or religious school isn’t going to defund a public school, because much of the funding stays,” Lenney said.
Nichols also highlighted that the program would be opt-in for families and for education providers.
“Both families and those who want to participate would have to apply,” Nichols said. “They would have to fill out the application to be a servicer.”
No private school in Idaho would be obligated to accept ESA funds. However, a school that did apply to appear on the online platform would not be required to adapt its policies to participate in the program.
The bill’s requirement that the state not oversee nongovernmental schools concerned some speakers. They questioned what metrics would be used to measure student achievement, and who would be qualified to teach and receive taxpayer funds through the program.
“My understanding is anyone can qualify as a tutor,” said former educator Marji Bass.
Bessie Yeley, a resident of District 10, is a disabled veteran and the parent of a disabled child. She worried that the bill would draw funding away from special education programs, and that it would not require private schools accepting ESA funds to serve all students.
“My son’s district, like many others, can’t afford many opportunities,” Yeley said Tuesday.
Yeley testified virtually the first day, and brought her son Sailor in person to the capitol the second day. She said her family has firsthand experience with private schools rejecting disabled students in Nampa.
“There’s a reason ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] laws were passed,” Yeley said Wednesday.
Nicole Trakel said allowing more students to take advantage of school choice options may relieve crowding in struggling public schools. Nichols echoed that in her closing comments, saying she envisions numerous small private schools being specifically established to cater to students with disabilities.
Other speakers said they were open to the state helping parents pay for private school – but not at the expense of the public school’s budget.
“This isn’t the question of support for school choice. It’s a question of the funding,” Kathy Clees said.
“Idaho County children already have an abundance of school choice,” said Norma Staaf. “There is plenty of choice. It’s a money grab.”
Supporters, on the other hand, argued it is unfair for them to pay taxes for a system they do not use.
“I have chosen to alleviate the public school system of three children,” said homeschool parent Dominic Brandon. “I am paying extra to have that freedom, and I am not using the public resources.”
Citizens Alliance of Idaho executive director Matt Edwards referenced his organization’s pledge for lawmakers, which includes voting to support expanding education freedom.
“I’m certain you’ll stay committed to education freedom and give parents control,” Edwards said.
Following two days of testimony and discussion, the committee sent the bill 6-3 to the Senate floor.
Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said she is opposed to state funds going to private schools, especially while the state is investing historic amounts of funding into the public education system.
“I’d like to get that done and see what the results are before we start siphoning off money,” Ward-Engelking said.
Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, supported the bill, but said if she had written it, she would include a mechanism to distribute the limited amount of funding based on need.
“My concern is that we may not be providing enough of an opportunity for kids already in public schools who want to make a change,” Den Hartog said.
Lent, the committee chairman, said he appreciated the sponsors’ work drafting the legislation and bringing it before the committee. He said other states like Arizona, however, have taken multiple years to set up and fine tune their education savings accounts programs.
“We are going zero to sixty,” Lent said. “There probably is an Idaho solution here, but with respect to the sponsors, this is probably too much too fast.”
The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration. It must also earn approval from the House and the governor to become law.
Ayes (6): Sen. Ben Toews, R-Coeur d’Alene; Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian; Sen. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton; Sen. Cindy Carlson, R-Riggins; Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Idaho Falls; and Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa.
Nays (3): Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls; Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise; and Sen. Carrie Semmelroth, D-Boise.
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.