Analysis: Party platforms carve out a deep divide on education issues

Idaho Democratic Party members finalize the party platform at the 2024 state convention at the University of Idaho. (Mia Maldonado/Idaho Capital Sun)

Idaho Republicans and Idaho Democrats have at least one thing in common.

They know how to distinguish themselves from the other guys.

When it comes to education, the two parties couldn’t be much farther apart. Their platforms, approved this month at party conventions, might as well be talking about two different education systems.

With both parties using education issues to play to their base, the 2025 Legislature’s education debates could be more politicized than ever.

Last weekend was the Democratic Party’s turn for a convention — held, as circumstance would have it, on the University of Idaho’s campus. Meeting a week after the GOP’s convention, the Democrats didn’t stake out new ground on education. But the differences, in tone and content, were nonetheless striking:

  • “Public dollars should stay in public schools,” the Democrats said in their platform. “We stand against siphoning off public tax dollars for nonpublic school voucher schemes.” (The word “voucher” is particularly irksome to supporters of private school choice, so its insertion is probably not accidental.) The GOP’s platform language specifically endorses education savings accounts — one of several vehicles that could be used to move public dollars into private schools.
  • Calling education “a lifelong endeavor,” Democrats affirm their support for higher ed. This would normally read like a throwaway, if not for the GOP’s mixed signals. In one new addition to the platform, Republicans come out against “using taxpayer funding for programs beyond high school.” In the next paragraph, in older platform language, Republicans say they “recognize the importance of Idaho’s higher education system.” Technically, it’s possible to believe a higher education system is important without being willing to pay for it. But it’s not easy.
  • Both parties tout the importance of career-technical education. But the Republicans attached higher ed defunding language to their CTE platform plank — which is, at the very least, a jab at GOP Gov. Brad Little and his Idaho Launch postsecondary scholarship program.

It all sets the stage — predictably enough — for another round of fierce debates over school choice, higher education budgets and Launch.

There is a pragmatic reason for both parties to lean into education issues: Their talking points placate their respective bases.

Democrats can frame their support for higher ed and Launch around terms of economic opportunity and access. Hardline conservatives can rally their core by invoking images of all things woke on campus — and by deriding the Launch scholarships as a big-government giveaway.

School choice also splits neatly along partisan divides. A narrow plurality of Idahoans support shifting state dollars into private or religious education, according to Boise State University’s most recent Idaho Public Policy Survey, released in January. But 59% of Republican respondents said they favor the idea, while 65% of Democratic respondents voiced opposition.

These political realities bode ill for give and take. For a Republican lawmaker from an overwhelmingly red legislative district — or a Democrat representing one of the state’s isolated islands of blue — there is little real incentive to compromise on platform politics.

Provided, of course, that you’re an elected official who agrees with your party’s platform.

That is another place where the parties diverge.

Idaho Democrats unanimously approved their platform, Emily Pearce of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reported last week. The Republican platform, meanwhile, illustrated rifts within the state’s majority party, as Little, Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke and state superintendent Debbie Critchfield all raised questions about where their party’s delegates were going with its higher ed language.

“You’ve got two Republican parties in this state,” said Rod Gramer, a former Idaho political reporter who is now the CEO of Idaho Business for Education.

The conservative wing of the GOP — the Republicans aligned with state GOP chair Dorothy Moon — is likely to push its advantage and press its platform. Moon has made no secret of her desire to hold Republican lawmakers to the platform. After hardline conservatives picked up additional House and Senate seats in May’s primary, Moon will have that many more willing lieutenants on her side.

Yes, the GOP platform on higher education is muddled. And the process of actually defunding colleges and universities would be convoluted, and maybe impractical. Nonetheless, Republican convention delegates clearly want their lawmakers to cast a skeptical eye at higher ed spending and Launch, and finally move off dead center on school choice. Democrats, meanwhile, want their lawmakers to continue to serve as the loyal opposition, no matter how outnumbered they might be.

And this means moderate Republicans — an ever-shrinking group, coming from a dwindling number of purple legislative districts — might need to work even more closely with Democrats. It might be their best hope of protecting Launch, preserving higher ed funding and holding the line on school choice. In a strident Statehouse, this might be about as much bipartisanship as one can expect.

The platforms spell out the differences between the parties. The GOP’s platform also highlights the differences within the party.

“I think you’re going to see a lot of crazy stuff next session,” Gramer said. “It’s going to be great for reporters.”

Whether any good for anyone else is another question, and all in the eye of the beholder.

More Democratic convention coverage from Mia Maldonado of Idaho Capital Sun.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday