(UPDATED, 3:07 p.m., to correct that the charter school bill would not affect facilities payments to charters.)
Lawmakers gave a lengthy charter school overhaul bill the initial go-ahead Thursday — even as they scrambled to figure out what’s in the legislation.
The House Education Committee introduced the 31-page bill, dubbed the “Accelerating Public Charter Schools Act.” That means the bill will now go public, and will come back to the committee for a full hearing.
Among other things, House Bill 386 would allow new charter schools to operate for six years, up from five years, while established charters could get a 12-year renewal. The bill would move the state’s Public Charter School Commission under the umbrella of the State Board of Education, making it a free-standing entity.
During brief discussion, the bill’s co-sponsor said the proposal would consolidate 26 years of charter school policy tweaks into one complete overhaul. For years, lawmakers have “fussed around the edges” of charter school law, said Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale.
Gov. Brad Little’s office, the State Board and the charter commission have vetted the bill, Boyle said. The commission voted to endorse the bill in December.
But as lawmakers began their vetting, several of them seemed overwhelmed by the complexities of the bill. And the title, and the pledge to accelerate Idaho’s system of 78 charter schools, gave Rep. Steve Berch pause. “This sounds like more than just a cleanup, streamlining bill,” said Berch, D-Boise.
Fellow Boise Democratic Rep. Chris Mathias asked the committee to put off the printing of the bill, so lawmakers could have more time to study it. Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, argued for introducing the bill immediately, which will also allow Idahoans time to vet. “We’ll have lots of time for hearings and things,” he said.
Mendive’s motion to introduce the bill passed unanimously.
House Education Chairwoman Julie Yamamoto said she could understand why colleagues are “reasonably concerned” about a complicated bill they’ve just seen. She said she wouldn’t bring the bill back for a full public hearing until the week of Jan. 22 at the earliest.
“Let’s give it time, let it percolate,” said Yamamoto, R-Caldwell.
Republicans propose repeal of constitutional barrier to school vouchers
Since the 19th century, the Idaho Constitution has barred taxpayer money from going to private religious schools. Whether that’s still the case will be a matter of debate in the Legislature over the coming weeks.
A pair of Republicans Thursday proposed repealing Idaho’s so-called “Blaine Amendment,” a longstanding provision in dozens of state constitutions, now seen as a potential barrier to private school spending programs.
Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings have rendered the provision “null and void,” Rep. Elaine Price, R-Coeur d’Alene, told the House State Affairs Committee. Price and Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa, are co-sponsoring a joint resolution to repeal the amendment. The lawmakers unsuccessfully pushed identical proposals last year.
Democrats Thursday questioned Price’s interpretation of Supreme Court rulings. In 2020 and 2022, justices evaluated similar constitutional provisions in Montana and Maine, respectively, and ruled that their private school tuition assistance programs couldn’t discriminate between secular and religious institutions.
In other words, if state funds go to a non-religious private school, they must also be available to religious private schools, the court ruled.
Idaho’s Blaine Amendment is “only null and void to the extent that we’re giving money to private schools and not religious schools,” said Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise. “It’s not my understanding that we’re giving money to private schools right now.”
That could soon change. Repealing the Blaine Amendment is part of a broader “school choice” movement that seeks to direct taxpayer funds to private schools through mechanisms often called vouchers.
Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, leading “school choice” proponents in the Legislature, last week unveiled their latest proposal: a tax credit program for private school expenses. Other ideas for tuition assistance mechanisms are likely to follow this legislative session.
Repealing Idaho’s Blaine Amendment could avoid a potential legal battle over whether religious schools could benefit from such a tuition assistance program. But amending the Constitution is an arduous process in itself.
The joint resolution requires two-thirds supermajority support from the House and the Senate. Then, Idaho voters get a say — a majority must agree to the change. In 2012, Florida voters rejected a ballot measure to repeal their state’s Blaine Amendment.