When taking their oath of office, each and every legislator solemnly swears to faithfully discharge their duty to support the Constitution of the State of Idaho. Regarding education, the Idaho Constitution imposes a single irrefutable duty to our legislators: “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” Our founders believed so much in this duty, they proclaimed that the stability of our Republican government depends upon it.
In all of the arguments for school vouchers, I have yet to hear a legislator explain how sending public dollars to private schools supports this constitutional duty. Instead, supporters programs ignore the inconvenient fact that school voucher programs directly contradict this duty.
But, there is hope for those who support school vouchers: legislators do not have to choose between keeping their oath or providing the choice they think parents are entitled to. The simple answer is that they just need to require any private school that accepts public tax dollars to follow the same federal and state laws and rules that establish our uniform and thorough system of schools, including providing special education and serving students from disadvantaged circumstances.
If every one of the 783 public schools in Idaho are required to follow these laws and rules, why should private schools that accept public tax dollars be exempt from them?
By including this provision, the Legislature would ensure that students with disabilities, students who are racial minorities, students who are in poverty, students who do not speak English, students who are homeless, and students from every other disadvantaged circumstance have equal access to educational opportunities. Doing this would keep students safe by ensuring that every teacher, staff member, and volunteer passes a criminal background check, the same as public school employees. Doing this would ensure that every teacher and principal is evaluated according to the same standards imposed by the legislature in our public schools. Doing this would ensure that every educator is held to the Code of Ethics for Idaho Professional Educators, regardless of whether they teach in a public school or a private school. Doing this would ensure that every school meets the same expectations for helping students learn to read and ensuring they meet the same requirements to graduate. Doing this would ensure that parents have the same rights in private schools that they have in public schools. Doing this would ensure the same level of transparency and fiduciary responsibility for tax dollars that public schools provide. And the list goes on and on and on.
If these rules and laws are so vital in ensuring uniformity, accountability, transparency, and safety for public schools, why wouldn’t our Legislature act to ensure they also remain in place for publicly funded private schools? If a school voucher bill is enacted without this provision, year after year, we will watch hundreds of thousands of tax dollars disappear into private coffers without a shred of accountability for the use of them. Public schools, however, will remain shackled to every law and rule imposed by state and federal lawmakers including where tax dollars must be spent and where they cannot. Private schools will be celebrated for high achievement while they are empowered to select which students they will serve and which they will not, reinventing segregation for the 21st century. And, in the face of unwarranted and unrelenting criticism, Idaho public schools will remain steadfastly committed to providing equal education for every student, regardless of ability or disability, race or gender, wealth or poverty, because we believe in the words of our constitution and in our duty to support it: the stability of our republic depends on it.