Last year, Kelti Baker found herself in the same position as a lot of Idaho parents: frustrated with her children’s schooling. Worried that her children were falling behind, Baker joined a group of parents and formed a learning pod that served a small group of 15 students. Today, her children are flourishing and, in her words, “getting a better education” than in their neighborhood school.
Although Baker comes from a family of public educators, she supports House Bill 294. The bill, which builds on Idaho’s Strong Families, Strong Students Program, provides a $750 stipend to families that need a little bit of aid to help their children receive an education that works for them. These parents can use that stipend for educational expenses—things like textbooks, tuition, and tutoring—so that their children can thrive.
Unfortunately, some opponents of this modest assistance program have depicted it as an attack on public education. In a recent op-ed, former Idaho Chief Justice Jim Jones described the program as an effort to destroy public education.
But for parents like Baker, nothing could be further from the truth. In her words, “this bill is a way to empower parents and help children in their own education and development.”
What’s more, there is nothing in the Idaho Constitution that prohibits this sort of bill. Instead, the constitution simply requires that the state “establish and maintain” a system of public schools. Such provisions are known as “uniformity” clauses and state courts are virtually unanimous in holding that these clauses do not prohibit the state from establishing additional educational options. Claiming otherwise is the equivalent of arguing that the federal Constitution’s mandate to establish an army and a navy prevents it from creating an air force.
But Jones’s argument gets even worse. He complains that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Espinoza decision took away Idaho’s ability to discriminate against religious people and schools. In that decision, the Court embraced the principle of equality: It held that while states do not need to fund alternatives to public education, if they do, they cannot single out the religious for discrimination. It seems that if Jones had his way, a notorious anti-Catholic constitutional provision that was “born of bigotry” would still be allowed to stand in the way of greater educational opportunity in Idaho.
Behind the apocalyptic rhetoric about this modest bill is a fear that, when given an option, parents will make choices with which opponents disagree. But at the end of the day, it is parents who bring their children into the world, raise them, and educate them. It is parents who can best tell if their children are thriving or falling behind, happy or sad, on the straight and narrow or going down the wrong path. Parents who have means have all the resources in the world to ensure that their children get the education that is best for them. What’s wrong with leveling up the playing field so that all children have the same advantage?