Will school choice bills gain traction at the Statehouse?

(UPDATED, 3:47 p.m. Friday, to indicate that Reps. Ron Nate and Heather Scott support a repeal of the Blaine Amendment.)

Many school choice advocates believe they have momentum on their side.

Donald Trump has pledged to push for school choice. Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, unabashedly supports vouchers, educational savings accounts and charter schools.

But while the 2016 presidential election could elevate the school choice issue — on Capitol Hill and at the state level — the effects at the Idaho Statehouse are tougher to gauge. One of Idaho’s most visible school choice advocates isn’t expecting big changes during the 2017 session, which opens Monday. And a key legislator would just as soon put the issue on hold until 2018.

The national landscape

Trump didn’t say much about K-12 during the presidential election, but one of his concrete proposals was a $20 billion school choice initiative. Trump wants to use the $20 billion to bankroll a block grant program that encourages states to put matching money into vouchers or school choice.

And if actions speak louder than words, then Trump’s Nov. 23 action was loud and clear. In choosing DeVos for his cabinet, Trump chose someone who has been active both in GOP circles and in the school choice movement. With a Senate confirmation hearing scheduled for Jan. 11, DeVos faces close scrutiny from Senate Democrats and teachers’ unions.

Still, her nomination has had something of a trickle-down effect in statehouses from Virginia to Kentucky to Texas. “There’s an energy within the school choice community where they’ll be pushing a lot of legislation around the country,” Josh Cunningham, a senior education policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told POLITICO.com.

But this may not translate at the Idaho Statehouse — even when Republicans control the governor’s office, and 88 of 105 seats in the Legislature.

“The fact of the matter is, this is a state issue,” said Terry Ryan, CEO of BLUUM, a Boise-based nonprofit that works on school choice issues.

The constitutional issue

In Idaho and other states, school choice advocates face a powerful and well-established obstacle: constitutional language that forbids the use of public money to support religious schools. Commonly called the “Blaine Amendment,” this section of the state Constitution forbids a voucher system — which would allow parents to apply tax credits to enroll their children in private or parochial school. The amendment could preclude Idaho from taking part in a Trump school choice block grant program.

Ronald Nate
Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg

A year ago, before Trump floated his block grant proposal, Rep. Ron Nate took a run at tweaking the Blaine Amendment. Originally, Nate said he was seeking a clarification — language that would remove any questions about whether students could use state scholarships at church-run colleges. After his proposal stalled in a House committee, Nate said the amendment would have cleared the path to a voucher system.

Nate, R-Rexburg, could not be reached for comment Wednesday or Thursday morning. But on Thursday, Nate and Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, released what they called a “Growing Freedom for Idaho Agenda.” Their list indicates support for tweaking the Blaine Amendment, as well as support of educational savings accounts.

If Nate or other school choice advocates decide to propose changes to the Blaine Amendment, they face a daunting process. A constitutional amendment must pass both houses with a two-thirds supermajority, and receive majority support from voters.

The Idaho School Boards Association is already positioning for another battle over the Blaine Amendment. Its members, including district and charter school trustees, overwhelmingly passed a resolution in November urging the Legislature to leave the Blaine Amendment as is. And despite the long path to passing a constitutional amendment, ISBA Executive Director Karen Echeverria would rather see the idea voted down sooner, not later.

“You would hope to kill it in committee if you could,” she said.

A targeted approach?

Since a revamp of the Blaine Amendment is a “huge lift,” Ryan is instead thinking about an incremental approach.

One possibility is a targeted tax credit — designed to help at-risk or failing students or students in poverty. Individuals or corporations could commit some of their tax debt to a scholarship fund.

Legally, Ryan said, the idea is to circumvent the Blaine Amendment by allowing the dollars to pass from the donor to the scholarship fund, bypassing state coffers. And the idea behind the scholarship fund is to help a small number of students, perhaps about 1,000 students statewide. “But this would be the kids that need it the most.”

In past years, education groups have lobbied against more far-reaching tax credit bills — and ultimately, the bills have stalled out at the Statehouse.

And despite the trends beyond Boise, timing could work against school choice legislation at the Idaho Statehouse, at least for 2017.

That’s because a committee of 10 legislators is in the midst of the complicated and delicate task of reviewing Idaho’s school funding formula. The formula dates back to 1994 — four years before Idaho passed its charter school law. The committee is expected to continue working through 2017, and make recommendations to the 2018 Legislature.

Julie VanOrden
Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree

Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, chairs the House Education Committee and sits on the school funding formula committee. She would like the funding formula committee to have the time to finish its job.

“I want to put things on hold … so we have a better idea of where we stand financially,” VanOrden said Wednesday. “There are lots of pieces in school choice areas where I would like to wait and see what the funding committee comes up with.”

Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin contributed to this story.

Check back with Idaho Education News for legislative coverage, starting Monday, and follow @IdahoEdNews on Twitter for the latest breaking news throughout the session.

Disclosure: BLUUM is funded through a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which also funds Idaho Education News.