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Idaho legislative leaders detail the push to take on education program 'Idaho Launch' and ESAs

Leaders at the Idaho Statehouse have a goal of finishing their work by March 24th. Ahead of that, there are deep discussions expected on education topics.

BOISE, Idaho — As lawmakers are working to push to the end of the legislative session, legislative leaders sat down with reporters Wednesday to answer major questions heading into the final stretch as a part of the Idaho Press Club Legislative Leaders Lunch.

Two major topics still out for debate, the Idaho Launch Program and Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs.

The goal, according to House Speaker Mike Moyle, is to be done with legislative work on March 24th, that is two weeks from Friday.

Two education issues being hotly debated at the Capitol: what to do about the proposal to send grant money to Idaho students to pursue workforce development careers.

The second, what to do about ESAs, you may remember a major ESA pitch was voted down in the Senate.

The first debate, Idaho Launch, is an idea from Governor Little's office to send eligible Idaho high school students $8,500 grants to pursue in-demand careers after high school graduation or for those who have a GED. The program would begin in 2024. The goal is to fill areas of the job force Idaho needs by helping students cover the cost of learning those fields.

Critics of the plan have pushed on the cost of the program, and if it will really help develop Idaho’s job force in the way the state needs.

While it is possible the bill, House Bill 24, is amended and voted on by lawmakers in the Senate before the end of the session, there is now another factor in play, a trailer bill to Idaho launch that aims to fix problems critics see with the $8,500 grants.

Bill sponsors of the trailer say it makes three primary changes to Idaho launch: 1) It enhances legislative oversight of the program; 2) It ensures greater "skin in the game" from Launch participants by capping the maximum state match. and 3) It limits the use of Launch funds to just tuition and fees. The cost of the program, according to the bill, is also cut down from $60-$70 million from the previous price tag of about $100 million.

Senate Pro Temp Chuck Winder detailed the likelihood of Idaho launch at this point.

"I think the trailer bill kind of outlines most of the concerns that were voiced by a majority of the Senate members," Winder said. "There are probably some that just won't support it at all, no matter what you do to it. But that was the effort to try and get enough votes to move it forward, because I think there's a there's a good consensus that we need workforce development. We're just not sure. The way (house bill) 24 was written was the way to do it."  

Minority Ilana Rubel advocated for the idea, expressing worries about rushing into something new at this point in the session.

"I'm a supporter of launch. I would like to see that move forward. We're getting at a point in session where it's going to be really hard to cobble together something coherent other than launch. Frankly. They begin to work around the edges of lunch with a trailer or something, but it's going to be hard to build an entire new program from scratch in two and a half weeks," Rubel said.

We will have to wait and see if a deal is made on the big idea, and lawmakers are weighing how budgeting for education and in-demand careers will impact other factors in budgeting.

Another major idea still in play are ESAs.

Long story short, a proposal by Republican lawmakers would allow public tax dollars to follow students into private school, religious school, or home school.
A portion of money meant for a public-school student would instead be allowed to go to a family in the form of a savings account. The idea being that money should follow students to help them learn, rather than just having it go to a public school where a student might not do as well as other environments. ESA money would be allowed to be used for private school tuition or educational materials outlined by the proposal.

 However, is the topic dead after it was voted down in the Idaho Senate?

Republican leaders shared their behind-the-scenes statehouse insight. House Speaker Mike Moyle says there is appetite for ESAs in the house still.

"I think there's a lot of support on the House side to do something on the ESA, but I don't see them interconnected with the K -12 budget, Moyle said. "I know that some are concerned about that, but I don't see that. At least I haven't seen that way, that anything to make me think that's happening now. So I think that you'll see like a lot more movement like you saw in the Senate with the introduction of another bill this week on that issue."

The Speaker also alluded to new forms of the ESA legislation being taken up through conversations and debate. There is a divide between Republicans on how far the ESA idea should go and what limitations should be put on the proposal. More conservative Republicans wanted to see less controls on the idea.

“You're seeing the issues move around the edges, but you haven't got it to where it's all, you know, full steam ahead and where that ends up being. I just don't know because you're not seeing everybody coming together yet on that issue. There's still discretion, I mean, discrepancies between the two groups," Moyle said.  

Idaho Democrats maintain, ESAs should not be an idea lawmakers run with. They argue public schools need a boost, not a demotion in funding. 

"Idaho already is one of the leaders of the nation in school choice. We have a lot of school choice,” Rubel said. “So I don't think that we need to start throwing public dollars at private schools in order to claim that we are approaching that school choice. We have that. But I do believe it's important. I've always said I'm too conservative to support vouchers because I believe that there should be serious accountability that comes with the spending of public dollars."

Two of the biggest topics lawmakers wanted to tackle are not done right now but still have a chance to get done before lawmakers leave for the year.

Legislative leaders say they hope to see all the budgets process through JFAC by the end of this week or early next.

Again, lawmakers aim to be done by March 24th, Speaker Moyle says he wants to see that goal accomplished and he thinks it will send a message to lawmakers to get work done and go home.

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