by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
Proponents of expanding school choice options outside the public school system hit yet another roadblock Tuesday morning in the House Education Committee, as lawmakers might ask voters for guidance on the issue.
Yet another ESA bill
Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, presented a bill to establish the Idaho Education Opportunity Program. While not explicitly labeled education savings accounts, the bill utilizes a similar framework as other ESA legislation introduced earlier this session.
Clow said House Bill 289 would prioritize families who make less than $70,000 in adjusted gross income. Families making less than $40,000 would have been allowed to take advantage of both the new program and the Empowering Parents grant program.
The bill would have also required students to attend public school for 90 days in the prior year to qualify for the program. Like an earlier ESA bill which failed in the Senate, 80% of the funds would follow the student and 20% would go to the school district they would otherwise attend.
“As long as money is going into that account, it would be split on an 80-20 basis,” Clow said.
Education stakeholders repeated the same concerns they have been voicing all session about the program siphoning money away from public school districts.
“At the end of the day, it’s still an ESA,” said executive director Andy Grover from the Idaho Association of School Administrators. “There’s a reason there’s a billion dollars in levies.”
According to the Secretary of State’s office, 46 school districts across 40 counties are holding bond and levy elections this Tuesday.
Clow said his bill offered more accountability than prior ESA legislation. Private schools would be required to do standardized testing and provide the results to parents. Those results would be supplied with program applications.
“If they are not at grade level, if they are not making growth, the State Department of Education would not have to approve that application,” Clow said, and the family would no longer access the program.
Even with support for those sideboards, some lawmakers on the panel were difficult to convince.
“I’m not sure that we can sidestep our constitutional reality just by throwing money to a parent or private education,” said Rep. Dan Garner, R-Clifton, who moved to hold the bill. “We, the government, has to provide this system.”
The committee voted 9-7 to hold the bill.
HB 289 – Motion to hold in committee
Aye (9): Reps. Lori McCann, R-Lewiston; Dan Garner, R-Clifton; Gregory Lanting, R-Twin Falls; Jack Nelsen, R-Jerome; Mark Sauter, R-Sandpoint; Steve Berch, D-Boise; Soñia Galaviz, D-Boise; Chris Mathias, D-Boise; and Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell.
Nay (7): Reps. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls; Ron Mendive, R-CDA; Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls; Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls; Dale Hawkins, R-Fernwood; Ted Hill, R-Eagle; and Elaine Price, R-CDA.
ESA advisory question floated
Before rejecting yet another ESA bill, the House Education Committee heard a pitch to ask Idaho voters for some guidance.
“We are grappling with this issue, and it is coming before us over and over,” said Rep. Lori McCann, R-Lewiston. “What do the people think about diverting public tax dollars to go to private K-12 schools or private religious or parochial schools?”
Some lawmakers asked who would write the arguments for and against the ballot question. Chairman Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, asked McCann to bring the committee more information from the Secretary of State’s Office about the mechanics of placing an advisory question on the ballot.
They also discussed potential wording of the advisory question itself.
Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, said she wants to be sure the question doesn’t imply all education funding would go toward private schools. Rep. Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls, said that an ESA program would be an additional appropriation, not a diversion of existing education funds.
“I would like to find out how a majority of the public really feel,” Garner said.
McCann said her goal is to get lawmakers all pushing in the same direction on the ESA question.
“We can come together as a whole body – coming together, instead of coming apart,” McCann said. “If the people say yes, then we have work to do.”
Others argued that an advisory question would not actually require anything specific from lawmakers.
“We’re the Legislature,” said Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise. “We do what we want, and we have a history of doing that.”
The committee returned the legislation to McCann, who said she would work on a new draft of the question for introduction.
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.