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Idaho State Superintendent Critchfield talks state legislature, school choice and ESA's

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Debbie Critchfield fielded questions for a full hour on a "City Club of Boise" forum.

BOISE, Idaho — State Superintended of Public Instruction Debbie Critchfield (R-Idaho) voiced strong support for parental rights and school choice Monday in a Grove Hotel ballroom, equally balancing her approach on future choice expansion with the definition of "school choice" itself.

Efforts to implement educational saving accounts (ESA) received attention through the 2023 legislative session; however, no such bill worked through the statehouse to become law. Under the proposed ESA efforts, a portion of 'per student' funding would follow students to the school of their choice, rather than the district of which they reside.

Legislation through the session, including Sen. Tammy Nichols' (R-Middleton) Senate Bill 1038 (SB1038), would have allowed public dollars to pay for a student's private school tuition. SB1038 failed on the Senate floor.

"I think that [school choice and ESA programs] have been conflated in a way that we think that the only way to accomplish school choice is to have an ESA or a voucher," Superintendent Critchfield told KTVB after the event. "Idaho is school choice. Parents can make any educational choices for their child. Education is not regulated in Idaho. Everything about it encourages choice."

Critchfield quickly pointed to public charter schools, magnet schools, alternative schools, and homeschool as choices outside regular public school district boundaries.

"I think as that became more clear and more evident, particularly in the legislature, that it shifted away from 'we need more school choice' to 'look at all the ways that we are already supporting school choice,'" Critchfield said. "What makes sense for us? What kind of need is there? What are parents really looking for? And then, how do we do that in a way that doesn't damage our public schools?"

KTVB previously reported the state's funding formula for public school districts is moving away from an enrollment-based model to an average attendance-based model. Idaho temporarily moved their funding formula based on enrollment through the COVID-19 pandemic amid historically low attendance figures.

Returning to an attendance formula will act as a budget cut forcing some districts to downsize, according to the Nampa School District and the Twin Falls School District.

The Idaho State Legislature increased public K-12 school funding by 16.4% in the 2023 legislative session; however, districts are not recording pre-pandemic attendance yet. This results in districts not being able to access 100% of their budgets.

"And due to that, we're going to lose millions of dollars," NSD Superintendent Gregg Russell said. "If your districts operating at 91-92% attendance and you have 100% of students, you're losing eight or 9% of your budget."

Critchfield acknowledges this formula change and how it could impact certain school districts. In response, she is interested in changing Idaho's funding system.

"The current formula for funding our schools is more than 30 years old, and our classrooms look different, our needs are different, the resources are different. We've added more money, and it's a completely different landscape," Critchfield said. "I'm looking forward to convening some folks this summer, particularly, our leaders in the legislature, and our education partners with the goal of bringing something forward on how we modernize the funding for our students."

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