Reclaim Idaho, the group behind the 2018 Medicaid expansion initiative and a recent campaign to boost education funding, has launched a petition against school vouchers in anticipation of the upcoming legislative session.
The debate over vouchers — and other means of directing public dollars toward private or nontraditional education — has gained traction in Idaho and around the country in recent years.
Some conservative lawmakers have pushed for a variety of school choice options, such as education savings accounts, tax credit programs or scholarship funds.
But Reclaim Idaho organizers are concerned that vouchers would defund rural schools, raise property taxes and harm student achievement, according to the petition website.
“Over the past two years, we at Reclaim Idaho have worked hard to secure funding for public schools,” said Reclaim Idaho co-founder Luke Mayville. “Thousands of volunteers have gotten involved with the goal of making sure we have strong public schools in every community. We see school vouchers as a direct attack on public schools.”
Since launching on Dec. 8, Reclaim’s petition has received over 4,000 signatures. Signees come from 143 towns across the state, said Mayville.
Reclaim Idaho led the effort to get the Quality Education Act on the 2022 ballot. The initiative would have channeled over $300 million into K-12 by increasing corporate and income tax rates.
Soon after the secretary of state’s office announced that the initiative qualified for the ballot, Gov. Brad Little called a special session of the Legislature to approve a $330 million increase to the K-12 budget, cut taxes and issue tax rebates. After the Sept. 1 session, the Reclaim initiative was later pulled from the ballot.
Reclaim is concerned that come January, the Legislature could use a portion of that $330 million to implement a voucher program. With a slate of hardline conservatives assigned to the Senate Education Committee, this committee could be a focal point in the school choice debate.
Reclaim isn’t the only organization with concerns.
The West Ada Education Association, the teachers’ union for the largest district in the state, shared Reclaim’s petition on its social media, encouraging followers to sign.
The Idaho School Boards Association also recently approved a resolution opposing vouchers, tax credits and scholarship programs supporting private schools. Earlier this year, the ISBA was among several groups that opposed a bill to allow families to spend state funds on private school tuition and fees. The House Education Committee killed the bill.
Vouchers were also a hot topic in the leadup to the November elections.
Democratic state superintendent’s candidate for Terry Gilbert clung to voucher opposition as one of the main tenets of his campaign. His Republican opponent, now state superintendent-elect Debbie Critchfield, voiced her support for school choice, but said she does not want to “voucherize” the public education system or put rural schools at risk.
Reclaim’s petition includes a prewritten message to lawmakers. Read it in full here:
To: Idaho Legislators
From: [Your Name]
“We, the undersigned, call on you to support public schools and vote no on any legislation that transfers tax dollars out of public school in order to subsidize private schools.
Supporters of vouchers claim they expand “school choice” by giving families an alternative to public schools. But for the vast majority of families, vouchers don’t provide better choices. Instead, vouchers siphon funds from public schools and harm communities.
The consequences of a voucher program are clear:
Vouchers will defund rural schools. In Idaho, the vast majority of private school students live in just four urban counties. Meanwhile, 21 rural counties have no private schools at all.
Vouchers will raise property taxes. In Wisconsin, where vouchers have drained state funding for rural schools, local property taxpayers picked up the tab. Property taxes went up by $108 million a year.
Vouchers will harm student achievement. Recent studies in Ohio, Indiana, and Louisiana found that voucher programs caused drastic declines in student test scores.
We urge you to support public education and vote no on any legislation that uses public tax dollars to fund private schools.”