Public education dollars should support families with children

I usually stop reading an article that starts with the old canard “supporters of privatizing education” after just those first four words. But, I read through the entire piece Jim Jones and Rod Gramer wrote because of who they are and because I was curious to try and understand their argument even if I don’t agree with it.

As Jones and Gramer wrote, Idaho’s Constitutional language around education is 130 years old. When it was written the GEM State’s total population was 88,548 people. In 2021, Idaho’s total K-12 age student population (public, private and homeschoolers) is around 330,000 children or about 3.5 times more than was Idaho’s total population 130 years ago.

Idaho is clearly a different place than it was in 1890, and the education and learning needs of our children are radically different. This was all fairly obvious before COVID-19, but COVID brought this painful reality home to our families and parents. They are the ones ultimately responsible for their children, their education and their general well-being when schools close and teachers stay home irrespective of Article IX, Section 1 of the Idaho Constitution.

It was ostensibly the realization that Idaho’s families needed help and support for their children’s learning that Governor Little created the popular and effective Strong Families, Strong Students (SFSS) program. This child-centered program allowed eligible families to receive microgrants or reimbursements of $1,500 per student, with a maximum of $3,500 per family. These federal taxpayer dollars were allocated to Idaho through the CARES Act signed into law by then President Donald Trump. These public dollars were utilized by families to purchase a range of educational goods and services from a host of private companies and vendors made available through the private ClassWallet fulfilment platform.

Strong Families, Strong Students was a highly successful public-private venture that delivered for over 80,000 Idaho children, the vast majority of whom lived in families with annual incomes of less than $50,000.

Jones and Gramer apparently had no constitutional qualms around a violation of “general, uniform, and thorough system of public, free common schools” with $47,000,000 of taxpayer dollars allocated for education flowing for goods and services purchased from private companies like Dell, Apple, Microsoft, Sparklight and Adobe. Fact is about half the Idaho families that applied for Strong Families, Strong Students grant support did not receive it. Were their constitutional rights to a “general, uniform, and thorough system of public, free common schools” violated? What about those children with families who didn’t apply? Under the Jones and Gramer reasoning, shouldn’t those dollars have flowed directly to public schools rather than to parents?

Should Idaho pass a new law creating a microgrant program similar to Strong Families, Strong Students using federal dollars and/or Idaho state taxpayer dollars (the source of funding in House Bill 294 is not clear) Jones and Gramer argue forcefully that the addition of allowing parents to use some or all of their $750 microgrant to subsidize the cost of their child’s private or religious school would make such a program unconstitutional. Following their rationale, the issue doesn’t seem to be the “privatization of education,” or empowering Idaho parents with taxpayer dollars to purchase goods and services from private vendors. Rather their issue is using taxpayer dollars to cover the partial cost of tuition to attend a religious private school.

Jones and Gramer cite two other sections of Article IX that specifically prohibits taxpayer monies from going to fund religious schools. This clause in Idaho’s Constitution is commonly referred to as the Blaine Amendment. Named after House Speaker James Blaine, the Congressman who introduced it in 1875 (it failed in Congress), the amendment was promoted in states, including Idaho, across the country in the 1870s and 1880s by “virulent prejudice against immigrants, particularly Catholic immigrants.”

Last summer the U.S. Supreme Court held in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that Montana’s Blaine Amendment provision around education violated the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, the Court ruled the “application of the no-aid provision discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution.”

It’s the confluence of the Court’s Espinoza Decision with the pain families have felt during COVID-19 that has triggered an explosion of student and family choice bills being introduced across the country. According to the Wall-Street Journal “nearly 50 school choice bills have been introduced this year in 30 states.” States with little or no history of student choice programs like West Virginia, Kentucky, and South Dakota have passed or are working to pass student choice legislation this year. These states understand the educational rules have changed. They are working to take advantage of the Court opening under Espinoza to provide families more say in how and where their children are educated.

What’s more, as demonstrated in Idaho by the overwhelming uptake by families of the Strong Families, Strong Students program parents here want more learning choices and opportunities for their children as well. Long-time American education reformer Bruno Manno wrote in Education Next, “After surveying 1,000 public and private school parents on how COVID-19 affected their views of schools, longtime pollster Frank Luntz expressed surprise: ‘Never in my lifetime have so many parents been so eager for so much educational change.” Idaho lawmakers are right to try and meet the urgency of the moment and to give students and families more options for their learning than they had 130 years or even just a year ago.

 

About Terry Ryan

Terry Ryan is CEO of the Boise-based education nonprofit Bluum and Board Chair of the Idaho Charter School Network.

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