Remove barriers to education choice in Idaho

While other states have been rapidly expanding education choice, Idaho, painfully, will again likely do nothing this year. But it’s not for lack of trying.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, has the boldest idea of them all, but his bill is being denied a hearing. Nate has proposed an amendment to the Idaho State Constitution that would allow education funds to follow students to the school or education opportunity of their choice, based on a student’s unique learning needs. In some cases, that might be an innovative nonpublic school. Idaho’s constitution, through what’s known as the Blaine Amendment, makes that impossible and could put some existing funding now used by students in jeopardy.

The measure has 37 sponsors. A constitutional amendment would require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate in order to appear on the November ballot, where it would take a simple majority of votes to pass.

The Blaine Amendment is found in the state constitutions of more than three dozen states. It has a sordid history worthy of discussion — some scholars argue that the amendment is a byproduct of 19th century bigotry. That alone would qualify it for removal.

Nate’s proposal would open educational options for K-12 students. Also,  it would remove a cloud regarding the use of taxpayers’ dollars for high school students who are in dual enrollment programs and students who attend nonpublic higher education institutions in Idaho, as is the case with state-funded college scholarships.

The constitutional amendment was scheduled for a hearing in the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday, and then suddenly it was dropped from the calendar. No legislator is saying, at least on the record, why. Typically, in a case like this, anyone involved can claim plausible deniability for having been involved.

Naturally, the teacher labor union is thrilled that the hearing on the proposal was canceled. The Idaho Education Association has been pressuring lawmakers to reject the amendment and instead concentrate on throwing as much money as humanly possible into the existing public education system.

Idaho schoolchildren deserve and need education choices. For some, a traditional public school is perfect. For others, it’s a charter school. Some students do better in a private school and others thrive in a home school. However, the state constitution puts the education system’s needs ahead of the needs of school students. Not only is funding for dual enrollment and scholarship-funded students at risk under the Blaine Amendment, the state constitution creates a very high bar for Idaho parents and students to benefit from exciting school choice measures being introduced, embraced, and used in other states. Among the innovations seen elsewhere — but not in Idaho — are Education Savings Accounts.

For some reason, the same Legislature that won’t give consideration to Nate’s proposal is the same Legislature that last year gave three days of hearings to Add the Words supporters and this year devoted time to Medicaid expansion supporters. Lawmakers have quietly avoided conversations about allowing Idahoans to carry a weapon concealed without a permit, but they’ll go all out to showcase and create a new $30 million entitlement and welfare program.

It’s been said that the Legislature is supposed to be an “arena of ideas,” and Nate’s idea is what’s best for Idahoans. He’s focused on removing barriers to education choice in the K-12 system and keeping students from losing access to higher education because they’ve chosen to take their college scholarship to “the wrong school.” If Nate’s proposal is as excellent as I think it is, it ought to reach the ballot on its merits. If lawmakers think the proposal is wrong, they should at least hold a public hearing on the amendment and tell Nate and school choice supporters why they’re wrong.

Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.