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Critics push back on school voucher legislation for Idaho families

Critics say a voucher program pitched at the Idaho statehouse violates the state constitution because of where public dollars would go under the program.

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho Representatives Dorothy Moon and Gayann DeMordaunt are sponsoring the Hope and Opportunity Scholarship legislation designed to give public education funds to individual families for them to spend on their child’s education.

The bill calls for appropriating about $130,000 in state funds to allow families to buy things like online-learning programs, tutoring, individual classes, and extracurricular services.

“This act would allow dollars to follow students so parents could access education services environments that work best for their children,” said Rep. Dorothy Moon (R-Stanley).

There are qualifications to get that money. Eligible students could receive about $6,000 each. Critics say there is a major red flag though: The public funds could be used to pay for private school tuition.

“It’s unconstitutional,” said Rod Gramer, President and CEO Idaho Business for Education.

Gramer said voucher programs like the Hope and Opportunity Scholarship legislation are simply against the state constitution.

“The Idaho Constitution says that in Article nine, Section one; it’s given the legislature the mandate to fund free uniform public schools and thorough public schools. It's not a wish. It's not a maybe. It's a mandate that the legislature supports public schools,” Gramer said.

Gramer adds that the constitution goes even deeper into the topic if you read further.

“In two other parts of the Constitution the founders of our state said the state shall spend no money supporting private schools or religious schools. And so, if a voucher bill passes that provides tuition for a private school, it automatically nullifies the Idaho Constitution,” Gramer said.

Gramer said similar legislation in other states that create voucher programs or education savings accounts (ESAs) are supported by national organizations with a common goal -- moving away from public school systems. In Idaho, that charge is led, in part, by the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

“Least, you know, the Freedom Foundation's very open that they want to abolish public schools. And to their credit, they're very open about that. But these other organizations and many legislators are not so open about wanting to undermine the Constitution and our public schools,” Gramer said.

Gramer said a major concern for supporters of public education is that the campaign will hamstring an already underfunded public education system.

“It seems to me that they've got all these catch words like, 'parent choice' or 'failing public schools,' that they're trying to make the public believe that this is a very innocent effort. But at the heart of it, they're going to at best undermine the public schools and at the worst, they're going to defund the public schools,” Gramer said.

Taking money away from public education in Idaho is something Gramer and other education advocates are pushing back on. They ask how the state can take money away from students who need more, not less.

“If this were a business and you had a business, and your business was underfunded and undercapitalized, you wouldn't go buy another business and spread your capital even thinner. You would fund the business that you had and get that on its feet,” Gramer said.

Gramer said whether you support vouchers and ESAs or not, the legislation being presented at the statehouse in its current form is simply against the constitution.   

“The people that are pushing vouchers essentially want to amend the Constitution by legislation instead of two-thirds vote of the legislature and a vote of the people, like the Constitution calls for,” Gramer said.

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