Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

Congress could expand education choice options too

The advancement of education choice options for children in Idaho has hit one frustrating roadblock after another. But that hasn’t been the case in most other states.

Thirty-three states now have some type of education choice law on the books to empower families with limited to middle-class incomes to access private and religious school options for their children. The U.S. Congress may also step up to expand school choice to children in every state.

Twelve of these 33 states, including neighboring Utah, are implementing near “universal” education choice where almost every family with school-age children will have the option of choosing the best, most suitable school available.

Idaho is not one of these 33 states, which means Idaho families have thus far been left out of the education choice revolution sweeping America, which accelerated after the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, and continues apace.

Idaho’s absence of education choice opportunities is not for lack of interest. During the recently concluded state legislative session in Boise, a bill to provide individual tax credits to families to offset private school tuition and other education expenses was voted down in a House committee. Last year, another bill that would have provided education savings accounts to families to cover education expenses was defeated on the Senate floor.

The U.S. Congress looks ready to expand education freedom for students in grades kindergarten through 12, which would especially help families in states like Idaho that continue to lack this opportunity.

Congressman Adrian Smith of Nebraska, who represents a mostly rural district, and Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, have proposed the Educational Choice for Children Act (ECCA) that would provide credits against federal individual and corporate income taxes for donations to scholarship-granting organizations.

Scholarships would be awarded to as many as two million students nationwide, including more than 13,000 in Idaho, which can be used for private school tuition or educational services and materials akin to how a “529” plan works for higher education expenses. This latter option means that a child who remained in a district public school could still obtain a scholarship to address learning gaps.

Importantly, the ECCA would not open the door to Washington dictating education policy in public or private schools. This legislation is carefully designed as a tax bill to spur private sector support for education. It contains no role for or spending by the U.S. Department of Education and would not impose mandates or directives on states, school districts or participating scholarship entities and schools.

The recent defeats of education choice legislation in Idaho are not unusual in the history of expanding educational options. Education choice means a change to the status quo of education and brings new competition to public schools. That’s a positive for the most important stakeholders in education – children and their parents. For the education system, and a multitude of adults that comprise that system, change typically is unwelcomed and resisted.

If more of Idaho’s lawmakers in Boise and Washington focus on the right priorities—children and parents—then education choice will be understood as an obvious benefit, both in popularity with a cross-section of voters and in effectiveness for students. After several state legislators who are opponents of education choice lost their primary elections last month, perhaps more lawmakers will get the message that parents mean business.

More than perhaps any other issue, education choice has robust support among voters and over extended time periods. Last summer, RealClear Opinion Research polled 1,000 registered voters and found that education choice was supported by a lopsided margin of 71 to 13 percent, with Democrats (66%), Republicans (80%) and independents (69%) strongly in favor, along with Blacks (73%), Latinos (70%) and Asians (70%).

Studies continue to show that education choice offers a range of benefits for elementary and secondary school students. The overwhelming number of studies on education choice programs, both recent and going back decades, confirm their impact is overwhelmingly positive regarding academic improvement – including for students who remain in the district public schools – and on taxpayer savings, integration, school safety, and parent satisfaction.

Federal and state lawmakers should take notice—and take action—to bring education freedom to Idaho children by financially empowering their parents to determine the best education available for them. Otherwise, our families will lose out as more and more states leave us in the educational dustbin of history.

Chris Cargill is President of the Mountain States Policy Center, which promotes free enterprise, individual liberty and limited government policies for Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming. Peter Murphy is a Senior Advisor to the Invest in Education Coalition, which supports expanding K-12 education freedom for every child to access a great education.


Chris Cargill and Peter Murphy

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