As the legislative session nears, education policy predictions are everywhere. In December, Reclaim Idaho started circulating a petition condemning vouchers, presumably to preemptively nip any potential voucher legislation in the bud.
Vouchers are a policy conceptualized by libertarian economist Milton Friedman. Friedman purported that education funding ought to go to parents, rather than schools, thereby allowing parents to choose where to send their children. The money would follow the student to the school of choice in the form of a voucher, like a coupon, and the school would essentially redeem the voucher for funds from the government to educate the student.
In the early 2000s, the word “voucher” was heavily tarnished, primarily by groups who argued that vouchers would unconstitutionally allow public funds (tax dollars) to be used for private or religious schools, thereby violating the Establishment Clause. Others argued that vouchers would siphon money from public schools.
Since the tar-and-feathering of the word “voucher,” libertarian-leaning efforts have shifted from voucher proposals to “education savings accounts,” or ESAs.
ESAs are similar in concept to vouchers, but its fun new name can be easily confused with a 529 college savings plan, so it sounds different and proactive. ESAs would allow parents to direct tax dollars to a school of their choice, much like a voucher program. There are some differences, however, which are really only articulated in court rulings and legal argument.
Different versions of ESAs have been tested in various U.S. courts over the past fifteen or so years. Legislation in Arizona and West Virginia has passed Establishment Clause tests. An oversimplified summary of court rulings on ESAs is that courts have considered ESAs in a new context, as a “benefit program.” One court likened the concept to its inability to prevent a person from choosing to spend a welfare check on private or religious school tuition.
SCOTUS took up one of these “benefit program” cases, Carson v. Makin, and released a ruling earlier this year, which read in part, “As noted, a neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause.”
It is highly unlikely that any forthcoming education proposals from the Idaho Legislature will be referred to as “vouchers.” If the conversation is not reframed, the anti-voucher petition being circulated by Reclaim Idaho could be considered moot.
There is a great deal of irony, however, in the fact that the Idaho Freedom Foundation, through its newly formed “Center for American Education,” will spearhead the effort to establish a government-led “benefit program.” The Idaho Freedom Foundation’s efforts have historically sought to eliminate or reduce government programs.
An ESA program would likely be a means to an end for IFF. The impact of establishing a system of ESAs could effectively transition the Idaho legislature’s Constitutional duty to “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools” to something entirely new: establishing an education funding system which doesn’t have much at all to do with public schools.