Controversial scholarship bill is dead for the session

The Senate Education Committee will not hold a hearing on a controversial private school scholarship bill, effectively killing the proposal for the year, the bill’s sponsor and the leaders of three education groups said Tuesday.

Rep. John Vander Woude told Idaho Education News he learned Monday night that HB 590 will not receive a hearing.

Rep. John Vander Woude

“(I’m) disappointed, because I believe there has been a lot of misinformation on what this bill actually does,” said Vander Woude, R-Nampa. “At this point, we’re still ignoring the kids with needs, the kids with risk, in their education process. And the longer we ignore it the more harm it does. ”

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, confirmed reports that his committee won’t hear the bill.

“It is important to know that I visited with a large group of people — I visited with my committee, with other members of the Senate — and with that consideration, I decided it was in best interest to hold House Bill 590,” Mortimer said.

Idaho Association of School Administrators Executive Director Rob Winslow and Idaho Rural Schools Association Director Harold Ott also said they learned Monday night that the bill won’t be heard. Although an official agenda had not been released, they were gearing up for another hearing on the bill, initially scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s been pulled,” Winslow said.

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“We’re relieved,” Idaho School Boards Association executive director Karen Echeverria said Tuesday morning. “It’s just one of those things that we can’t support.”

“We are glad to hear that the ill-conceived HB 590 has been pulled and will not be moving forward,” IEA President Kari Overall said in a written statement. “Our public schools are critical parts of Idaho neighborhoods and communities, and it is imperative that we protect their funding and integrity.”

The four groups opposed the bill, saying it could divert resources from public schools toward private schools.

HB 590 would have directed the state to create a new scholarship for at-risk and special-needs students, as well as students from military families. Students could have applied that scholarship toward tuition and fees at a private school, a private online school, a tutoring program, toward standardized test fees and more.

Vander Woude and other backers have said the bill would open more doors to more families, and would be ideal for special-needs students who might thrive in smaller classes at a private school.

But the bill faced opposition from every major education group in the state, including IASA, ISBA, the Idaho Education Association and the PTA. The State Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra also opposed HB 590.

Opponents said they have no problem with school choice, but wondered why the state would incentivize students to leave public schools and attend private schools, which are not obligated to provide funding or programs for special needs students and may not offer services such as bus transportation.

Other opponents said HB 590 was a private school voucher bill masquerading as a scholarship bill, a charge Vander Woude denied.

Vander Woude has said numerous times he would support pairing the scholarship with a state tax credit to incentivize donors to contribute to the scholarship fund. That rankled education groups that said doing so would divert financial resources away from public schools.

After the scholarship bill passed the House 39-31 on March 5, Winslow took to social media to ask his members to contact their senators and voice their opposition to the bill.

When asked how public school administrators viewed the proposal, Winslow was blunt.

“They hated it,” he said Tuesday.

Vander Woude, who has brought similar bills in previous years, said Tuesday he would continue to work on the issue in the years ahead.

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