Analysis: The ‘v-word’ that dominates Idaho’s school choice debate

In the looming Statehouse debate over school choice, “vouchers” will be an image invoked — and a word avoided.

For critics, vouchers are a convenient catchall description for all programs designed to shift public dollars into private schools. School choice proponents see the term as a misnomer, falsely attached to all school choice legislation.

Framing matters. Vouchers has become a loaded word, said Idaho Business for Education CEO Rod Gramer, a school-choice opponent who is neither shy nor apologetic about using the v-word.

School choice could be one of the biggest issues of the 2023 legislative session, which begins Jan. 9. Many words will be expended. Fortunately, there are some well-established and more or less agreed-upon definitions. So let’s start by studying school choice vocabulary — using definitions from a neutral party, the National Conference of State Legislatures.

  • Vouchers “are state-funded scholarships that pay for students to attend private school rather than public school.” In other words, the state cuts a check, and parents use it to help cover private school tuition.
  • Scholarship tax-credit programs “allow individuals and corporations to allocate a portion of their owed state taxes to private nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations that issue scholarships to K-12 students.” In this case, the money never goes into state coffers; it instead gets siphoned into the private school scholarship fund.
  • Education savings accounts can allow parents to siphon state dollars into private school tuition, but parents aren’t required to do so. “Parents can choose not to use the funds for tuition but, instead, use them to pay for a number of products and services — including online courses, textbooks and tutoring — related to educating their children.”

And in many states, vouchers aren’t even necessarily the preferred approach to school choice, according to the advocacy group EdChoice. In 2021-22, about 304,000 students went to school using vouchers, while states awarded more than 325,000 scholarship tax credits and some 31,000 students received funding from education savings accounts.

Nonetheless, “voucher” remains the keyword in this debate.

An Idaho School Boards Association resolution opposing school choice takes an all-inclusive tack. “A voucher, tax-credit, or scholarship program will cause irreparable harm to our existing system of public school districts and charters, especially in rural Idaho, and will likely harm overall student achievement.”

However, when Reclaim Idaho launched an online petition to mobilize Idahoans against potential school choice legislation, the words “voucher” or “vouchers” appeared 11 times. And Idaho Education Association spokesman Mike Journee probably speaks for many school choice opponents when he says there’s no practical difference between the legislative approaches.

“No matter how you label it, those concepts are still vouchers, which IEA members adamantly oppose in all forms,” Journee told Idaho Education News this week.

The emphasis on vouchers rankles school choice advocates.

For Karen McGee of Pocatello, it all sounds familiar. Now a board member on the National Coalition of Public School Options, an Arlington, Va., advocacy group, McGee helped write Idaho’s first charter school law as a member of the State Board of Education. Even then, much of the blowback centered on criticism of vouchers. But then, as now, McGee believes the question boils down to a simple concept. “I said it 20 years ago and I’ll say it again; it’s about giving parents choice.”

Newly elected Sen. Brian Lenney, one of several conservatives assigned to the Senate Education Committee, has gone on Twitter to push back against critics’ catchall use of the term “vouchers.”

“Vouchers are about the government giving money to private schools. Whereas ESAs are about empowering parents and trusting them to make the right educational decisions for their own children,” Lenney, R-Nampa. “More than anything, I trust parents and believe they need to be put in charge of every aspect of their child’s education… including the money that’s allocated for it. So when people equate ‘school choice’ with ‘vouchers,’ they’re misspeaking. Because school choice is an umbrella term for several different things.”

(Lenney requested Idaho EdNews run his statement in full; you can link to it here.)

So, who’s right in this war of words?

Neither side is entirely wrong.

The school choice advocates are right. Not every school-choice bill is a voucher bill. And in recent years, Idaho’s school choice debates have centered on bills to create education savings accounts or scholarship tax credits.

But the opponents also raise a fair point. ESAs and scholarship tax credits, if not fully voucher-esque, pretty much accomplish the same objective. They effectively move public dollars into vehicles that could pay for private school tuition. The big difference is that vouchers are more limited, focused only on tuition costs.

Vocabulary matters, though, because public policy debates often swing on who wins the battle of messaging. And while critics are happy to hang the politically charged voucher tag on all school-choice bills, proponents are equally happy if they can avoid it.

“I think that’s very strategic on their part,” ISBA deputy director Quinn Perry said.

Case in point: When former Reps. Gayann DeMordaunt and Dorothy Moon pushed a plan to create a $12.7 million education savings accounts program earlier this year, they dubbed it the “Hope and Opportunity Scholarships Program.” Hard to be against hope and opportunity, right? Making matters more confusing, the DeMordaunt-Moon plan was not to be confused with the Opportunity Scholarship, an existing, state-funded program that helps thousands of Idahoans afford college.

If semantics seem superficial, consider this news nugget from the week. When the Mountain States Policy Center released a statewide poll, the nonpartisan free-market think tank said 35% of its survey respondents had never heard of school choice. The school choice debate might feel like an ongoing battle to Statehouse insiders, but that’s evidently not the case across much of Idaho.

And here’s another reason why this all matters. People on both sides of the school choice issue might not be able to agree on semantics, but they should at least be able to agree on the importance of the debate that is coming next session.

“Pushing for educational freedom (aka school choice) is the absolute top priority for me as a state senator on the Education Committee,” Lenney said. “Because I’m convinced the best way to help students and parents is to give them more options, more freedom, and more opportunity — full stop. When it comes to education, nothing is more important.”

“I think it’s the most important education debate that we’ve had since statehood,” said Gramer, invoking the state Constitution’s language mandating public, free common schools. “This decision will either support the founders, or it will upend the intent of the founders.”

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

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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