What Idaho’s school choice debate misses

Should tax dollars collected to support public schools be shared with parents wanting to educate their kids in some other way? While this question is fracturing the Idaho legislature, what should be a healthy and productive debate is daily becoming less so.

You can blame two elements of Idaho’s debate absent in jurisdictions where real progress on education choice has occurred. These are: (1) a bias against consensus, and (2) a powerful but hidden agenda against public education.

Idaho’s bias against consensus is truly unfortunate as it is the “low-hanging fruit” of school choice. The root of this bias is known: the tone and tenor utilized when advocates are paid to whip up emotion. If you thrive on controversy, consensus is a death blow to your business model.

Chicago Public Schools, a system operating in a Democrat stronghold and run by some of America’s most progressive educators, offers parents more options for “dollars to follow their child” than does Idaho. And it started offering parents those choices nearly 37 years ago.

A 2017 audit by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that, in that environment of school choice, “private school enrollment in Chicago among 15-year-olds has actually fallen—from 22.3 percent in 1990 to 11.9 percent in 2015. At the same time, the quality of CPS schools has generally improved. Average ACT scores have risen, while dropout rates have declined.”

In other words, by seeking consensus Chicago was able to dispel the myth that school choice inherently damages public schools. The fact is, by allowing private schools to “take the slack” that would otherwise divert funds into new infrastructure and administration, teachers in the traditional neighborhood high schools actually benefitted.

It was a win-win . . . which is why, in Idaho, the loudest “school choice” advocates would consider it a loss. Their “go-to” fundraising pitch maligns teachers and demonizes their union.

By contrast, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), one of America’s leading conservative state think tanks, spends considerable time and effort documenting the benefit of school choice for teachers. Austin Prochko of the TPPS aggressively markets the fact that parents use “choice” to divert students into lower headcount classes. That translates into more demand for teachers, which leads to higher compensation.

Further compounding Idaho’s school choice dysfunctionality has been the rise in white Christian nationalism, especially in northern Idaho. Jeff Brumley, a writer for Baptist News Global, notes that Christian nationalists started by advocating prayer in classrooms and dedicated time for scripture study (justified as “religious literacy”).

When that didn’t succeed, the default has been the “Ed Exit” movement, not just withdrawing students from public schools, but withdrawing taxpayer support. “Why should my tax dollars fund teaching a philosophy I don’t believe?” is how one North Idaho GOP leader put it.

One can’t miss the ironic similarity between this sentiment and that expressed by Maine politician James Blaine, the Republican nominee for President who lost to Grover Cleveland in 1884.

Blaine feared his tax dollars would support educational instruction not loyal to America’s protestant Christian tradition. His “Blaine amendment” language in the Idaho Constitution was designed to prevent “sectarian education loyal to a foreign power,” by which he meant “the Pope.”

This combination, a bias toward divisive school choice options, and a powerful but hidden desire to see public schools fail altogether are toxic to productive legislating. A voucher, savings account, or tax credit option could be accused of harming public schools, only to see that increase political support.

Profit motives and religious bigotry are hardly new to American politics. We make headway by calling them out and discounting them for the narrow parochial interests they represent.

Trent Clark

Trent Clark

Trent Clark of Soda Springs is President and CEO of Customalting Inc. and has served in the leadership of Idaho business, politics, workforce, and humanities education.

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