Lawmaker seeks to ease ban on church school funding

An Eastern Idaho lawmaker wants to amend Idaho’s Constitution, to ease prohibitions on using state funds for religious schools.

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Rep. Ron Nate

The proposal from Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, involves the Constitution’s so-called “Blaine Amendment.” This section of the Constitution prohibits the Legislature and local governments from using public funding to pay for any school, university, college or educational institution “controlled by any church.”

Meanwhile, one lawmaker worried the proposal could pave the way for creating a statewide tuition voucher system.

Nate — who teaches at Brigham Young University-Idaho, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — said his amendment is necessary to allow students to continue to use the state-funded Idaho Opportunity Scholarship to attend religious schools such as Northwest Nazarene University or BYU-Idaho.

Nate said the amendment is necessary to protect students and families from potential legal challenges. Nate also suggested there could be threats to students’ ability to transfer dual credits earned in high school to a religious school.

“This resolution and amendment attempt to fix such troubles before they start,” Nate told lawmakers.

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Rep. Ilana Rubel

Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, asked whether Nate’s amendment would lead the way to a voucher system, which would allow the use of taxpayer funds to cover tuition at parochial schools.

Nate said he was concerned with protecting scholarship recipients. He said he does not know what the future holds in terms of a voucher system, but added, “At least we would have clarity if that came about.”

According to Nate’s proposal, “nothing” in the Idaho Constitution would prohibit the Legislature, any local government or any school district from making “payments, grants or donations of public funds or moneys for the purpose of providing grants, scholarships, loans or other assistance to students or parents of students for educational purposes.”

“I think this is deeply ill-advised,” Rubel told Nate.

A constitutional amendment would need to pass both the House and Senate by two-thirds majorities. Then, a majority of Idaho voters would need to approve the amendment in the November election.

The House Education Committee voted to introduce Nate’s resolution on a voice vote. The proposal would likely come back to the committee for a full hearing.

Computer science standards

In other action Tuesday, House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt pushed a new bill designed to create a computer science initiative in public schools.

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Rep. Reed DeMordaunt

DeMordaunt, an Eagle Republican who owns a software company, said a new focus on computer science education is necessary to better prepare students for in-demand tech positions that are going unfilled in Idaho.

Through his bill, DeMordaunt hopes to adopt a set of nationally recognized computer science standards, develop an online repository of instructional resources, provide teachers with professional development training and foster collaboration to create postsecondary computer science courses.

“This is one small piece of the puzzle starting in our education system to start to develop computer science standards for instruction, as well as starting to provide other resources for our educators out there,” DeMordaunt said.

DeMordaunt is seeking to base the initiative out of the state’s STEM Action Center and provide funding for one new full-time employee. He is also seeking collaboration between industry leaders, the STEM Action Center, the State Board of Education and the State Department of Education.

“We’re not trying to create another branch of government here,” DeMordaunt said.
“What we’re trying to create is an information base that can be pushed out through the current channels of the system today.”

DeMordaunt estimated his proposal would cost $94,300 in next year’s budget for the new employee’s salary, benefits and operational costs.

Members of the House Education Committee voted to introduce DeMordaunt’s bill on a voice vote. It is expected to return to the committee for a full hearing.