Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

Let’s make a deal: Is it Launch vs. savings accounts?

Rod Gramer

For the past six years those who want to privatize our schools have tried to pass legislation that would use taxpayer dollars to support private and religious school tuition. And repeatedly their efforts have been defeated.

The latest attempt was a tax credit that would cost the state $50 million in lost revenue. Fortunately, it was tabled last week by the House Revenue and Taxation Committee on a 10-7 vote.

It was defeated even after the out-of-state pro-voucher lobbyists put unprecedented pressure on committee members, even sending flyers to at least one lawmaker’s constituents. It was defeated even after the House leadership, realizing it didn’t have the votes for the bill, stacked the committee with an additional pro-voucher legislator.

Despite this setback, those who want to privatize education reportedly plan to come back with an Education Savings Account (ESA) bill which operates like a credit card for parents to pay tuition at private and religious schools. This same legislation died last year for lack of support in the House Education Committee.

But this time legislative leaders are not going to risk losing again. They will reportedly run the ESA bill through one of the pro-voucher committees. But that’s not all they are doing to ensure success after so many failures.

There is talk at the Statehouse that legislative leaders plan to hold Governor Brad Little’s popular Idaho Launch funding bill hostage until he agrees to let the ESA bill become law. In other words, if Little gives them private and religious school tuition, they will give him funding for Launch.

Although the Launch funding was approved February 23 by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, it hasn’t been given a bill number or assigned to the legislative calendar for consideration. However, that could change this week as JFAC Co-Chair and pro-ESA Rep. Wendy Horman has apparently decided to release it.

Yet the fact that it has languished for three weeks is a clear sign that legislative leaders and pro-ESA lobbyists are sending a message to the governor: Let’s make a deal.

But there is no reason Governor Little must agree to this political quid pro quo. Repeated rejection of voucher-like legislation over the past six years demonstrates there is strong support against private and religious school taxpayer-supported tuition.

Furthermore, the word is out that vouchers in other states only subsidize students who have never attended public schools, divert funding from neighborhood schools, and carry a huge cost for taxpayers.

Holding Launch hostage isn’t even good politics for privatization legislators. Idaho Launch is one of the most popular programs to come along in years. Nearly 14,000 Idaho high school seniors have applied to receive a Launch grant after graduating this year.

And there is a good reason for its popularity. The Launch grants will change students’ lives for the better, helping them get a postsecondary credential that leads to a good career. The business community strongly supports Launch because it will help build the skilled and educated workforce Idaho needs.

As a sign of its popularity, hundreds of students in all 35 legislative districts have applied for a grant. For example, 560 students in House Speaker Mike Moyle’s district have applied. In District 32, which is represented by Rep. Horman, the leading supporter of voucher-like legislation, 442 students have applied. And applications are still being taken until mid-April.

In an election year you don’t want to be the candidate who blocks the opportunity for hundreds of your young constituents to get the education they need for a good career and stable future. Especially when behind every student are parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends otherwise known as voters.

It’s time for legislative leaders to give up their quixotic campaign to privatize our schools. And it’s past time for them to quickly pass Idaho Launch funding and hit the campaign trail. For them it’s a better political strategy than holding the governor and his popular program hostage.

More importantly, it’s the right thing to do for Idaho’s students, employers, and taxpayers.

Rod Gramer

Rod Gramer

Rod Gramer is president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, a group of Idaho business leaders dedicated to education excellence.

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