CALDWELL — Gearing up for the 2024 legislative session, the controversial topic of school vouchers is back.
In a full auditorium at the College of Idaho on Wednesday, panelists discussed school vouchers as part of the forum “Dialogue in a Time of Political Polarization,” answering questions and concerns from community members.
The panelists all expressed unease about school vouchers for various reasons and Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R- Caldwell, assured attendees that this would be an ongoing issue in the 2024 legislature session.
Simply put, school vouchers “give parents a certain amount of public education funding towards private school tuition,” explained moderator May Roberts, policy analyst at Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy.
Panelists explained this means taxpayer dollars going towards other educational options besides public school.
Different initiatives tend to get umbrellaed under the term “school voucher” or what proponents sometimes call “school choice.” These include Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs), tax credit scholarships and programs like the Empowering Parents Grant Program, which was made permanent last legislative session.
In Idaho’s 2023 legislative session, a $45 million universal ESA bill died on the Senate floor, and a $12 million private tuition grant bill passed the Senate but did not receive a hearing in the House. Though both sides agree that children deserve high-quality education, who pays for it remains divisive. Those advocating for vouchers like Anna Miller from the Idaho Freedom Foundation see them as helping to “ensure every child has access to a high-quality education, regardless of zip code or income level.” This includes families who want their children to attend private or parochial schools.
Yamamoto empathized with this concern, understanding that often “one size doesn’t fit all” with public schools, and wanting students and parents to have choices. However, “where we part company,” she explained, “is who pays for that.”
Panelist Nancy Gregory, president of the Idaho School Boards Association (ISBA) and member of the Boise School District board of trustees, also emphasized the seriousness of diverting money from public schools.
“Most of the support for public schools comes from the general fund at the state level,” she explained. “So, if you siphon off some of that money to go to private schools, you are diminishing the general fund. And then usually…by policy the state decides that they will reduce support for public schools.”
Roberts cited Idaho’s 49th place ranking in per pupil education levels, affirming, “we need to consider our investments to make our educational system on par with the rest.” She worries that supporting both public and private education would interfere with those efforts, with “taxpayers paying for two educational systems” as explained by Gregory.
Accountability for government money also emerged as a main worry of panelists. Though not the case with all school choice programs, more popular recent programs are “universal” meaning anyone can apply to them with no regulation of the private schools they support.
“Do I think kids are worth every cent we put into them?” Yamamoto asked. “I do. But let’s make sure we’re getting what we think we’re paying for and that we’re holding people accountable for…taxpayer money.”
A community attendee from Boise explained that lack of accountability for taxpayer dollars going to private schools worries him. “I would argue that there has to be some greater effort to figure out…some accountability that is effective.”
Though proponents of vouchers hope to provide various types of high-quality schools for all children, Homeschool Idaho board member and panelist Audra Talley doesn’t see these bills as necessary.
“Idaho already has school choice. We have public schools, we have private schools, we have homeschools. And every choice we have…has different costs and benefits….and I think homeschoolers agree it is ridiculous to expect the taxpayer to fund every educational option out there.”
Though homeschoolers stand to qualify for ESAs and other voucher programs, Talley and Homeschool Idaho have voiced concern about the regulation that may come over time with government funding.
In terms of equity, panelists also mentioned rural students, with Roberts citing an analysis done by the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy concluding that “nearly half of all of [Idaho] counties don’t have a single private school.”
With 2024 sure to bring more school choice bills, audience members asked Yamamoto why she thought voucher bills didn’t pass last legislative session.
She cited the many constituents who expressed concerns to representatives. “And we’re not just talking [about] the one click thing [online]. We had people calling, catching you in the grocery store, sending you emails, texts, letting us know they were really concerned.”
Gregory pointed audience members to the lobbyists from out of state promoting school vouchers. According to the Secretary of State’s website in 2023, “the top three [lobbyists were] education, pro-voucher lobbyists, who have spent more money than anyone else. And they are all [lobbyists from] out of state.”
However, not all support for vouchers comes from outside the state. Yamamoto acknowledged that many within Idaho support school choice programs.
Yamamoto’s closing remarks focused on the students as her priority. “I would like to see the conversation in Idaho move away from the controversy of [school vouchers] to [our youth] and their emotional, social and educational needs. Because what I do believe is not controversial is that we do care about our youth…and that investing in them is best for them and best for our future.”
Katie McGuire is a freelance reporter for EdNews. She lives in Meridian with her husband and their two children. She has a bachelor’s degree in secondary education social science teaching from Brigham Young University and a master’s in history from Kent State University.