Idaho begs for school choice

Idaho’s school choice debate is dysfunctional. Anti-government libertarians yell “Ed-Exit,” while the moribund education establishment recites “Article IX,” mandating a state public school system, contained in the Idaho Constitution. There are a million worthy variations in between those opposing positions, and it is past time we examine them.

Much blame lies with the shrill “parental choice” advocates. “Choice,” in their case, is a misnomer, a fraudulent rally cry with the real objective being to stop parents choosing a free local public school. Their rhetorical weapon of choice is non-stop demonization and disparaging of “government-run schools.”

Purely for effect, these libertarians conjure images of public schools as hot-beds of Marxist critical race theory, routinely failing on standardized tests, hoarding pornography on every library shelf.

The truth is that critical theory — applied to race, gender or any other “intersection” — is not taught in K-12 schools as a “theory.” It is the “praxis,” or practical effects, of the theory that are ubiquitous, found everywhere; yes, in schools, but also in home school curricula and honors courses taught at exclusive private schools.

To criticize standardized testing is just a cheap shot at public schools, since only public schools are required to test. Private schools have no similar mandate. And most ironically, the same critics who cry loudest at “porn in the library” are the obstinate defenders of porn on cellphones, an outlet for teen exposure to pornography chosen roughly 10,000 times more than school libraries.

While Idaho engages in this very unproductive debate over “whether” to have a system of public, free common schools, the rest of America is leaping forward with targeted innovations in teaching through experience and instructors outside the public-school mainstream.

Forbes Magazine carried a feature article in July titled “School Choice Advocates Rack Up Major Victories In 2022.” The magazine spotlighted the sea-change of June’s Supreme Court Carson v. Makin decision. There the Court ruled Maine’s “funding that follows the rural student” cannot be denied to schools run by faith organizations.

The article quotes George Mason University Professor Ilya Sommin describing the decision as “a potential boon to poor and disadvantaged children … private school choice is often especially valuable to poor and minority children, and some religious schools — notably Catholic schools — are particularly adept at improving the performance of disadvantaged students.”

The American Federation for Children (AFC) is one of the nation’s leading advocates for school choice. The AFC website lists 31 states with some form of education funding that follows the child. Idaho is not on the list (see federationforchildren.org/state-programs).

Special education is one area that has benefited greatly from expanded parental choice. The National Center for Education Statistics reports about 13.1 percent of children in the United States receive special education services. Many advocates for children with special needs are now convinced that expecting “in-school” specialized care can be unrealistic.

The Cerebral Palsy Research Network and CHADD (an ADHD advocacy group) are openly encouraging parents to seek options beyond the public school for meeting their child’s unique needs. Fourteen states now have special needs scholarship programs through which $629.1 million flow to provide specialized educational opportunities outside a local public school. Idaho is not among them.

Idaho’s rural schools beg for more parental choice. Consider foreign language options at most small high schools: Spanish, maybe French or German. No school in Bear Lake, Caribou or Franklin counties currently offers Japanese, and yet records suggest as many as 93 Japanese speakers live and work in those counties. Why couldn’t language tutors be included as a parental choice?

Innovative school choices could provide needed experience in the skilled trades, offer musical skills beyond “band,” and teach computer programming optimized for STEM-bound students.

But no, Idaho is stuck in a log jam created by myopic public school bureaucrats fighting dark-money lobbies hired to wage all or nothing wars against government schools. To date, that strategy has yielded only the latter: nothing.

Trent Clark

About Trent Clark

Trent Clark is Chair of Idaho Families, Inc., a non-profit representing parents and families across Idaho, and formerly chaired the Idaho Workforce Development Council.

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