Every legislative session brings some new “school choice” scheme that is touted as a way to improve elementary and secondary education in Idaho by offering more choices to families. Sometimes the plan is called a voucher, sometimes a stipend, sometimes a grant, sometimes a savings account. This year the scheme is called a “refundable tax credit.” What every plan has in common is the use of taxpayer money to subsidize private schooling, including religious and home schools. Because of the chronic failure of our legislatures in the last several decades to adequately fund public schools, the cost of such schemes will ultimately end up being forced upon local property taxpayers.
The framers of the Idaho Constitution undoubtedly thought they had definitively dealt with the school choice issue. They placed a high priority on providing a foundational education for every Idaho child. The Constitution states: “The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” The framers gave nary a hint that public monies could ever be used to pay for private education.
Idaho law has always required parents to send their school-age kids to public schools. Parents can get around the compulsory attendance requirement by having their kids educated in a private school. So, Idaho parents have always had a school choice–they can either send their kids to taxpayer funded public schools, or they can pay out-of-pocket for any authorized form of private schooling.
Idaho’s constitutional framers made it an overriding responsibility for the Legislature to properly fund the public school system, both for the instruction of Idaho kids and for the construction and maintenance of school buildings. They undoubtedly believed that future legislatures would honor the constitutional mandate to maintain a “thorough system” of education, primarily funded out of the state treasury. They would be profoundly amazed and saddened to learn that legislators have seriously and consistently violated this sacred duty.
Thanks to the school funding lawsuit filed against the state in 1990, it is well known that Idaho legislators have failed to adequately fund the instructional side of public education during the last three decades. Because of pressure brought to bear by the Reclaim Idaho school funding initiative, the state significantly upped the ante of public funding in the special legislative session in 2022, but there is still a shortfall. Local school districts have been left with the choice of doing without adequate resources or saddling local property taxpayers to make up the difference.
In 2005, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature had flat failed to fulfill its duty to fund the construction and maintenance of school buildings, improperly placing the giant share of that burden upon local property taxpayers. The cost of bringing existing buildings up to just “good” condition is about $1 billion, let alone funding new buildings for a growing population. School districts either have to try to educate kids in substandard, sometimes hazardous buildings, or hit up local property owners with hefty school bonds.
The current “school choice” tax credit boondoggle, House Bill 447, would give private school parents $50 million in tax credits or payments right off of the top of the state budget. Providing a tax credit or deduction of taxes owing under the tax code, is using public monies for a private purpose. And, just who do you think will ultimately end up footing the bill? You got it, those long-suffering local property taxpayers who just don’t seem to have a strong voice in our legislature. The bill sponsors say the $50 million is a ceiling, but experience in other states shows that it is the first step of many on a costly escalator.
We ought to simply follow the choice plan adopted by Idaho’s constitutional framers– finance a high-quality public school system with public money. And allow those who wish to opt for private, religious and home schooling to pay the expenses with their own funds. If they want Idaho taxpayers to fund their private education costs, they should try to change the Constitution instead of defying it.