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Idaho bill eyes using public money for private education

Opponents argue the measure would harm rural school districts and violate the Idaho Constitution, which requires a uniform public education system.

BOISE, Idaho — Backers say a plan to create education savings accounts will help students in kindergarten through 12th grade, but opponents said it's just another voucher program to funnel public education money to private and religious schools.

The House Education Committee heard arguments on the measure on Monday but took no action after running out of time due to the many people who signed up to testify.

The measure allows parents to get $6,000 per student from the state for private tutoring or tuition at private schools. Backers said it would allow parents to select services that work best for their children.

“This money is not a voucher,” said Republican Rep. Dorothy Moon, one of the bill's sponsors. “This money is an education savings account.”

But opponents argued that it is a voucher system under a different name that violates the Idaho Constitution, which requires a uniform public education system. Opponents said that it would especially harm rural school districts.

“This will just take money from public education,” said Andy Grover, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators.

He was among several education organizations that testified against the measure, including Quinn Perry of the Idaho School Boards Association.

“(Education savings accounts) to us are considered a school voucher,” Perry said, noting private schools getting public money wouldn't be held accountable for curriculum. “For us, a yes vote on this bill seems to undermine this committee's and the Legislature's accountability oversight over schools.”

Carolyn Harrison testified in favor of the bill, saying it would help parents supply a “god-centered” education for their children.

“There is an inordinate amount of time now being spent teaching identity politics and social justice theories (in Idaho public schools),” she said.

Mandi Guy made a similar argument in supporting the bill.

“My husband and I would prefer our three children to attend a private Christian school that aligns with our values, morals and beliefs,” she said.

According to the National Education Association, the $7,705 Idaho spent per student in the 2019-2020 school year ranked it last in the nation.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences for the 2018-2019 school year said only five states and the District of Columbia had worse high school graduation rates than Idaho’s 81%. The Idaho State Department of Education said the graduation rate rose to 82.1% for 2019-2020, a school year that included the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic and the state's elimination of some graduation requirements.

Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little this year proposed an 11% budget increase for public schools, a record $300 million boost over last year’s budget amount that was dedicated to schools. But lawmakers have not voted to approve budget bills involving that public education spending proposal.

Republican Rep. Lance Clow, the Education Committee chairman, said the committee would take up the measure again later this week. It's possible the committee will vote on whether to send the measure to the full House.

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