Supporters of a scholarship program for private schools are walking back from their proposal.
Instead, they say they simply want to pass a bill to provide education grants to Idaho families.
On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee signed off on the idea. On a party-line vote, they agreed to send the grant-and-scholarship bill to the Senate floor for amendment — with the idea that the scholarship language will be stripped out of the bill.
“We have the opportunity to do something really impactful today,” said Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, a co-sponsor of House Bill 294.
As originally written — and passed by the House seven days ago — HB 294 would have established two separate programs:
- A Strong Students Grant program, which would allow eligible parents to receive up to $500 to help meet their children’s educational needs. It’s an extension of Gov. Brad Little’s popular Strong Families, Strong Students grant program from 2020. Sponsors want to use $30 million of federal money and $5 million of state money to launch the new grant program.
- A scholarship program for students moving from public schools to private schools. Sponsors want to fund the scholarships with a $5 million-a-year state line item.
The scholarship program remained a talking point — even after Den Hartog started Tuesday’s committee hearing by taking that section of the bill off the table. Mountain Home district Superintendent James Gilbert and Kuna Superintendent Wendy Johnson said the scholarships would strip scarce public dollars away from public schools.
And the debate over the grant program took a similar tone. The Idaho School Boards Association and Idaho Business for Education opposed the grant proposal, noting that parents would be allowed to use the money on private school tuition and fees.
“(This is) in direct conflict with the Idaho Constitution,” IBE CEO Rod Gramer said.
The bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Wendy Horman, noted that the state’s Opportunity Scholarship supports college students attending public and private schools, and downplayed opponents’ concerns over the grant proposal.
“The vast majority of the dollars is going to go to public school students,” said Horman, R-Idaho Falls.
And while several education groups voiced concerns Tuesday, several parents and a high school student said HB 294 would provide flexibility to families.
“If you give us options, you’re going to see phenomenal things happen in education,” said Jake Ball, a Meridian parent.
Once the Senate opens HB 294 for amendment, any senator can propose any change to its language. There’s no guarantee the bill will be amended as sponsors have suggested. And even if the bill is amended and passed, the House will have to sign on with the rewritten version.
Idaho Education News covered Tuesday’s hearing remotely.