HB294: Still a voucher bill in grant programs clothing

The Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators, and the Idaho Education Association represents thousands of school leaders – who carry very different responsibilities in our public schools – but are united on one front: we remain steadfast in our commitment to Idaho’s public school systems and we are not afraid to show it.

“System” gets a bad blow from school choice advocates – but it is quite literally the Constitutional obligation of Idaho’s Legislature to establish and maintain a “general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” But we do not do this work to benefit systems – we do it to create and support the systems to benefit students. We are opposed to HB294 – even as it has amended to read – because of one simple line in the bill: it allows public taxpayer dollars to go towards private school tuition and fees with zero accountability.

Our associations have wholeheartedly supported the Strong Families Grant program the Governor issued this fall. It was immensely helpful to families as public and private schools alike navigated the ongoing impacts of how school was going to look while still experiencing this global pandemic.

However, The Governor’s Grant Program was a pandemic-related program and never included private school tuition and fees as an allowable use. By today, almost all of Idaho’s public schools are operating full-time, in-person instruction. These funds should not be funding institutions in which the Legislature nor Idaho’s Citizens have a say in how they operate – especially as a majority of Idaho’s school districts rely on their taxpayers to foot their operational costs by voter-approved property tax levies.

Here are some ways that Idaho’s traditional public and charter schools differ from private and religious schools:
– Idaho’s public schools are required to publish their monthly accounting practices, in addition to holding public hearings on their budget. Private schools have no fiscal or operations transparency.
-Attending a traditional public school – including charter schools – costs zero dollars to families. Some private schools charge upwards of $60,000 in Idaho, but on average, their tuition is more than the amount of average yearly per-pupil spending in Idaho.
– Idaho’s public schools are required to align their curriculum to standards set by the Legislature, and conduct state testing of their students, which provides a transparent picture for Idaho’s return on investment. Private schools are not required to adhere to accountability measures, leaving an unclear picture of the return for sending tax dollars to institution with no accountability or data available to the public.
-Idaho’s public school teachers are required to hold certificates, and must comply with the Idaho Professional Standards Commission. Private schools do not carry the same requirement.
– Idaho’s public schools provide services to the children who show up at their door no matter what. Private schools are not required to adhere to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), or Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
-Students who attend private school are stripped of their First Amendment, due process, and other constitutional and statutory rights guaranteed to them in their Idaho public schools.

These bills with similar programs have surfaced multiple times throughout the years in the Idaho Legislature, with familiar backers of HB294, though the reasons and qualifications for the bill have changed to fit the current narrative. This year, it’s the pandemic.

Do not be fooled: we support a grant program that goes to low-income families who choose the education that is right for them. What we do not support is the concept of public tax dollars funding institutions that have no accountability to taxpayers, citizens, parents, or the Legislature.

We call on the Legislature to amend HB294 to keep the grant program but remove provisions that allow public dollars to fund private and parochial institutions.

Karen Echeverria – ISBA Executive Director
Andy Grover – IASA Executive Director
Layne McInelly – IEA President

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