When it comes to racking up Ws, school choice has been hotter than the 2006 Boise State Broncos football team on a Saturday afternoon. Last year school choice picked up well over 20 legislative victories. This year school choice legislation is active in around 30 states and counting. Nonetheless, school choice legislation faces some of its toughest competition in the Gem State. Indeed, despite school choice being a part of the official platform of the Idaho Republican Party, which has had control of the Idaho House, Senate, and Governorship for the last 28 years, Idaho has no school choice programs to assist with the cost of private educational expenses. How is it that one of the most Republican states in the union has a K-12 education system that limits choice creating an unequal playing field that benefits wealthier families who can afford private education options while leaving lower-income families in the dust? Idaho should be leading on school choice, not lagging.
In 2021 some Idaho legislators attempted to level the playing field by increasing school choice opportunities with House Bill 215 (HB 215). Nevertheless, HB 215 was stopped in the Idaho State Senate with the help of Republicans, leaving struggling families — especially low-income families — to foot the bill for education costs right when public schools struggled to stay open at the height of Covid-19. Not to be deterred, legislators came back this year with House Bill 669 (HB 669), which — like HB 215 — would have created an Education Savings Account (ESA). The ESA would have provided families with a scholarship of around $6000 to use toward their student’s educational needs, including private education, tutoring, learning materials, and special needs therapies. Once again, the bill was stopped, but this time in the House Education Committee on an 8-7 vote.
The worst part, five Republicans helped stop the bill despite overwhelming evidence pointing to similar private school choice programs having great success for students and families once implemented.
For example, of the 17 studies on private school choice participants’ test scores, 11 show positive results, and only 3 have adverse effects. In addition, of the 30 studies done on parent satisfaction with these programs, 28 had positive feedback. Test scores and parent satisfaction are not the only benefits of private school choice programs either, as studies on school choice programs show higher rates of perceived safety, civic values, and even mental health.
Despite these programs’ success, school choice critics in Idaho often refer to the damaging effects school choice has on local public school students. But this is a myth. Out of 27 studies on public school students’ test scores, after states and localities implemented a school choice program, 25 studies found positive effects, and only one study found any adverse effect. It turns out when you make schools compete for students, schooling improves across the board.
Simply put, school choice is the rising tide that lifts all boats. And Idahoan parents seem to know this: 82 percent of all school parents in the state support the ESA programs that could have been created had Idaho Republicans fought for school choice. Yet, Idaho Republicans ignored their constituent’s wants and needs, allowing an inequitable and broken system to stay intact to the detriment of Idaho students.
Enough is enough. Idaho Republicans should stop kicking the can down the road and make a plan to expand school choice as soon as possible. When it comes to finding an education that works best for their child, a family’s income should not matter. Education has the power to transform kids’ lives for the better. Why should economically disadvantaged Idaho students receive less education access? School choice would level the playing field, giving students an equal opportunity to improve their futures.