House Education vice chair faces two conservative challengers

This is the seventh of a series of stories spotlighting some of the most important legislative primaries on the May 21 ballot. Read previous stories here.

Rep. Lori McCann is a diehard supporter of the Idaho Launch postsecondary grant program, and an unabashed school choice skeptic.

The vice chair of the House Education Committee, McCann makes no apologies for her committee’s staunch opposition to bills that would shift public dollars into private schools. But she says that line in the sand probably left House Education marginalized in 2024. “Anything major got bypassed out of (House) Ed,” the Lewiston Republican said recently. “That wasn’t lost on us.”

McCann now is defending her four-year record — and, to an extent, her committee’s record — in a three-person GOP primary. Both of her opponents, Moscow Republicans Colton Bennett and Dave Dalby, are running to McCann’s right, especially on school choice.

The candidates are running in legislative District 6, which takes in Latah and Lewis counties and a portion of Nez Perce County. The GOP nominee will face Lapwai Democrat Trish Carter-Goodheart in November.

McCann: Voters ‘just are looking for common sense’

The major school choice bill from 2024, a private school tax credit bill, died in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. Other education-related bills went through the House State Affairs Committee — including a school library bill that became law; and a resolution seeking to block the University of Idaho’s plans to acquire the University of Phoenix.

State Rep. Lori McCann

Leadership shopped the school choice bills around, McCann said, because House Education’s support for public schools is well-established. And while the school choice debate has consumed much of the energy in the Statehouse the past two sessions, McCann hasn’t heard anything that eases her concerns. “I’ve been a hard no, because everything that’s been presented to us has no accountability attached to it.”

McCann is a member of the Workforce Development Council, the state agency charged with implementing Launch. And while she supports the program — which will provide high school graduates up to $8,000 to pursue in-demand careers — McCann also thinks the program should be fine-tuned. The state already provides financial help for students heading to four-year school, so she would like Launch focused on career-technical training and two-year college. “I think this needs to be more specific. And I’m comfortable with that.”

An ally of state superintendent Debbie Critchfield, McCann agrees with one of Critchfield’s top priorities: rewriting the state’s 30-year-old school funding formula. McCann says the outdated formula causes problems in her legislative district. Lewiston has a new, regional CTE center, but other administrators are reluctant to send their students there, because it will cost their schools a share of their funding.

In a GOP caucus often split on ideological grounds, McCann says her colleagues are too often fixated on hot-button issues such as cannibalism, when voters are more concerned with bottom-line issues such as property taxes. “What people are saying is they just are looking for common sense in Boise.”

Bennett: ‘I don’t believe that conservative values are being represented’

A former U.S. Army medic, who has most recently been involved in Latah County Republican politics, Bennett said he jumped into the race because he was dismayed by McCann’s record. “I don’t believe that conservative values are being represented as they ought to be in Boise right now,” he said recently.

Colton Bennett

Specifically, Bennett says he supports providing tax credits for private schools, dismissing the claim that a program would drain public school budgets. “It doesn’t touch the public school funding money at all. Schools won’t lose a single dime.”

He also says McCann has been too quick to label Launch a success — based solely on application numbers that have exceeded state officials’ expectations. The first round of Launch grants won’t go out until the summer. Until students enroll in their programs, and then try to navigate in the labor market, the program is unproven. “We cannot call the Idaho Launch a failure, but we also cannot call it a success,” Bennett said.

McCann consistently opposed the library bills that came through the House — including the last proposal, signed into law, which will require public and school libraries to designate areas for materials deemed harmful to children. Bennett said he isn’t comfortable with language in the law which will allow parents to seek a civil fine, but said he supported its sponsors’ intention.

Like McCann, Bennett lists property taxes as a priority. Bennett says he supported the new law, also backed by McCann, which will plow a historic $1.5 billion into school facilities, in an attempt to ease pressure on local property taxes. “I don’t have a problem with fixing the facilities. But I want to make sure that that we have oversight and accountability for those dollars.”

Dalby: ‘Public schools … aren’t the solution for every single family’

After 28 years in the U.S. Marines, Dalby retired as a lieutenant colonel. As a retiree, he and his wife settled on moving to Idaho, arriving in Moscow in 2021.

Dave Dalby

Dalby did not respond to EdNews’ candidate survey. In an interview, Dalby declined to comment about McCann’s record. “I would prefer to just talk about me and what I’m about and then I think that’ll do enough differentiation right there.”

Dalby differentiates himself from McCann on school choice and Launch.

School choice can help support a values-based education, which public schools are reluctant to touch but private schools can more readily embrace. “The public schools that exist aren’t the solution for every single family that’s out there,” he said.

He also said it should be up to industries, not state government, to drive the workplace training that Launch grants would bankroll. “I think that Idaho launch was an overstep of what we do with taxpayer funds.”

He also carves out a difference with McCann and Bennett on House Bill 521, the far-reaching 2024 law that puts $1.5 billion into facilities, reduces income tax rates, and addresses a laundry list of other policies. Like some lawmakers — supporters and opponents alike — Dalby said the bill was needlessly complex. “I was not a fan of it.”

However, on his campaign website, Dalby said he would push for property tax reform.

“We the People can no longer allow elderly citizens and families to be kicked out of their homes with erratic tax hikes!”

The race at a glance

McCann enjoys a significant fundraising edge. Through April 30, she has collected about $51,900. Her donors include a range of industry PACs; state Rep. Britt Raybould, R-Rexburg; and University of Idaho President C. Scott Green.

Bennett has raised close to $18,900, while loaning his campaign close to $500. His donors include three hardline House Republicans: Reps. Heather Scott of Blanchard; Dale Hawkins of Fernwood; and Mike Kingsley of Lewiston, who is retiring at the end of his current term.

Dalby has raised about $9,700 and has loaned an additional $19,300 to his campaign. On his website, he touts an endorsement from District 6’s senator, Dan Foreman, a hardline conservative Republican from Viola.

More reading: Learn more about the candidates at our online voter guide.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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