Idaho’s legislators are now poised to make one of the most consequential decisions in our state’s 133-year history and likely the most consequential vote any of them will make during their political career.
Why do I say this? Because the issue at hand, Senate Bill 1161, will eventually lead to a universal education savings account that will cost Idaho taxpayers millions of dollars, undermine funding for public schools, and upon adoption repeal by statute rather than by constitutional amendment a prohibition against taxpayer money going to religious schools.
This is not an idle opinion about where we are headed. I have the evidence to it up.
Over the past year I have conducted extensive research on the history of voucher and education savings account laws in other states that have had these programs for years.
By looking at what happened in these states – Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and Arizona – I could see what would happen eventually in Idaho if the Legislature passed a bill to provide taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools.
My research turned up one important red flag: In every state the privatization programs started small and were continually expanded until thousands of students received taxpayer subsidies and the cost to taxpayers soared into the hundreds of millions.
This finding is now very relevant to the current debate in Idaho over whether we should create education savings accounts.
Rep. Wendy Horman and Sen. Lori Den Hartog, longtime advocates of using taxpayer money to fund private and religious schools, have a new bill that is being considered in the Senate that will start a so-called “pilot program” just as these programs have started in other states. And, just as in these other states, it is destined to be expanded over the years.
Horman and Den Hartog would provide $6,000 per student, giving priority to low-income students. They would cap the program at 2,000 students. It would cost $30 million the first year and $12 million a year starting in 2025 for five years.
Horman and Den Hartog are grafting this language onto the popular Empowering Families program even though they agreed last year not to use the program as a vehicle to provide taxpayer dollars to private schools.
Still, their bill appears harmless enough. It limits the cost to 2,000 students. The cost is relatively low at $12 million per year. It is appealing because it gives priority to low-income students. Who could argue with that?
But to someone who has investigated what has happened in other privatization states the game plan looks familiar. And dangerous if one believes in public education and doesn’t want millions of dollars siphoned off to provide taxpayer subsidies for families that already send their students to private and religious schools.
For example, Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to pass a law that provided state funds to private and religious schools. The program started out as a “pilot” to serve a few thousand low-income students in Milwaukee. Eventually the program expanded to Racine and then went statewide.
Today the Wisconsin voucher program pays the tuition for 42,649 students to attend private and religious schools at a cost to taxpayers of $457.4 million a year. As in the other states, most of the students who receive vouchers have never attended public schools and are not low income. And most of the money goes to run religious schools.
When the Wisconsin Legislature voted to take the program statewide, Republican Rep. Steve Kestell, who chaired the Assembly’s Education Committee for years, warned, that expanding the state’s voucher program was not sound public policy – nor sound fiscal policy.
“This is a case where ideology sort of overwhelms good sense and judgment,” Kestell told the Sheboygan Press. “Where people who should have known better and are good mathematicians aren’t willing to do the math. It’s because they don’t want to show that would be detrimental to their plans. And the math doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work.”
Republican Rep. Marc Duff, who voted for the first voucher bill, told the Wisconsin School News there was a “feeling” among lawmakers that the program would only apply to Milwaukee, and they didn’t have to worry about the effect on their schools.
But after the program was launched in Racine and it cost the school district money and schools had to close, Duff regretted his vote for the original voucher bill. “Well, we’re all in it now,” he said with resignation.
In Ohio, the voucher program started off providing 3,000 low-income students in Cleveland tuition to private schools at a cost of $5 million. Sound familiar? By last year, the Ohio voucher program had soared to serving 68,000 students at a cost to taxpayers of $628 million.
“I double-dog dare you to find another area in the Ohio budget that has experienced such a skyrocketing increase,” Dan Heintz, a history teacher at Chardon Local Schools near Cleveland., told The Columbus Dispatch.
In Arizona, the education savings account program only served 12,000 students until last year. But last winter the Arizona Legislature passed a bill that made the state’s ESA program universal, with no income limit on how much families can earn to receive taxpayer subsidies.
The universal law now makes 1.1 million public school students, 66,000 private and religious school students, and 38,000 home school students eligible for about $7,000 per year, per student.
If all the private and religious school students received $7,000 – and why wouldn’t a family apply for free money – the cost to Arizona taxpayers would be an additional $462 million per year. And if all the home school students participated, the cost would be $266 million of new cost for taxpayers.
And that $728 million in new cost to taxpayers doesn’t even count students who might move from public to private schools, although again most of the students applying for the universal ESA so far have never attended public schools.
In Indiana, the voucher program also started small, but has grown to a cost of $224 million. But even that isn’t enough money to satisfy voucher advocates.
This winter a proposal is before the Indiana House that would more than double the voucher program by raising the family income eligibility income to 400 percent, meaning a family earning $220,000 a year could qualify. That expansion would increase the cost of the voucher program to $724 million in fiscal year 2024 and to nearly $1 billion in fiscal year 2025.
In Idaho, the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy estimates that a universal ESA program in our state could eventually cost $358 million. From my research, I believe that estimate is reasonable, and maybe even conservative. The only question is how long it will take to reach that number.
Here’s the bottom line: A limited “pilot” program like Horman and Den Hartog are proposing is not harmless and it won’t be limited, no matter what the sponsors say. Even privatization advocates will tell you behind closed doors – I should know, I have heard them – that the best way to get vouchers or ESAs passed is to begin with a limited number of “low-income students” or “special needs students” and then expand it from there.
But history shows in state after state that advocates of privatizing education never stop until they serve all students, especially those who have never attended public schools. And in state after state the cost to taxpayers climbs steadily to several hundred million dollars at the expense of the public schools.
The Idaho Senate overwhelmingly killed a universal ESA bill a few weeks ago. The Horman-Den Hartog bill is a Trojan Horse and the senators who opposed the first bill should know that.
When the senators cast their vote, they will not be voting on a “pilot” ESA. They will be opening the door to a universal ESA that will eventually cost their constituents millions of dollars, weaken our public schools, and violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Idaho Constitution.
Let’s hope they don’t live to regret their vote like the legislators in other states that were fooled by the privatization advocates.