Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

Lawmakers must avoid the false promise of vouchers

Layne McInelly

Transformative opportunities for public education sit on the table in front of Idaho policymakers this legislative session. Gov. Brad Little’s recommendations for essential investments that address an ongoing educator vacancy crisis is exactly the kind of leadership on public education issues our state needs.

Yet, lawmakers’ attention around public education is being irrevocably drawn away from investments that will have positive impacts in the classroom to vouchers schemes that are bad for Idaho’s public school students. Vouchers offer a false promise.

Voucher advocates use all kinds of labels and concepts to mask their ultimate goal: providing taxpayer-funded government subsidies for private schools that syphon scarce and desperately needed tax dollars away from public school classrooms. But no matter the benign label they put on the concept — scholarships, school choice, parental choice, etc. — the fact remains that vouchers reduce fair access to educational opportunity, provide no discernable educational benefit to students and offer no accountability to taxpayers for results.

Idaho is already a national leader in providing choice for Idaho’s public school families. Online virtual charter schools, in-person charter schools, gifted and talented education, special education, alternative education, career technical education and magnet schools are among the options for Idaho families. And it’s near certain that more options would be available once Idaho ends its decades of chronically underfunding its public schools.

Vouchers are often advertised by proponents as financial support intended for low-income families seeking higher-quality education options. Yet, research on voucher programs across the nation tell a different story. Vouchers are often used by higher-income families to attend private schools — schools parents would have selected even without the availability of a voucher. Many private school tuitions are much higher than voucher amounts, making it hard for lower-income families to supplement the difference.

Voucher proponents say allowing tax dollars to “follow the student” makes sense, even if that student goes to a non-public school. That broken logic ignores the fact that when a student leaves a public school, fixed costs such as teacher salaries, utilities, building maintenance and transportation don’t decrease. Vouchers leave less funding for the remaining students, which hurts our public schools. And it’s important to remember that despite additional funding provided in recent legislative sessions, Idaho still ranks near the bottom of all states in per-pupil funding.

Vouchers are particularly troublesome for rural schools and less affluent areas, where school resources are scarce and students and families have fewer, if any, non-public school education choices than more affluent urban areas. Taking tax dollars from rural public schools to help a select few pay private school tuition in urban areas is unfair and leaves too many hard-working Idaho families vulnerable.

Neither publicly elected school boards nor state officials oversee private schools, leaving taxpayers without input, insight or recourse about how tax dollars given to voucher schemes are spent. Unlike public schools, private schools are not required to comply with any laws or rules related to the type of education they provide. Transparency is a recognized problem with voucher school programs around the country and, as a result, taxpayer dollars are often misused.

Private schools are not required to serve all students, as public schools are. They openly limit enrollment, and in many cases may maintain exclusive admissions policies and charge tuition and fees far above the amount provided by vouchers. Unlike public schools, private and religious schools can — and do — discriminate in admissions on the basis of gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability, behavioral history, prior academic achievement, standardized test scores, interviews with applicants and parents, and income.

Vouchers are bad for Idaho’s public school students.

The best path forward for lawmakers this legislative session is the one laid out for them by Gov. Little: invest in all of Idaho’s dedicated educators to bring our public schools back into balance. They should heed the bright red line of using taxpayer dollars to create “choice” outside of Idaho public schools and not be distracted by the false promise of vouchers.

Layne McInelly

Layne McInelly

Layne McInelly is the president of the Idaho Education Association, Idaho's teachers union. He was a sixth grade teacher at Morley Nelson Elementary and served as the IEA's vice president for five and a half years.

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