What will become of Idaho’s rural schools?

If you live in one of Idaho’s many rural communities, and support your local schools, there are storm clouds on the horizon. You need to know of the impending threat to your schools and your towns.

The Idaho High School Activities Association recently concluded its fall sports/activities season, including volleyball, soccer, football, cross country, debate, speech and other activities and sports-held state championship tournaments at sites throughout the state. And schools across the state, large and small, have just concluded holiday concerts and activities to celebrate the season.

In small-town Idaho, activities and sports are the lifeblood of the community. On a Saturday in mid-November, Sugar-Salem’s football team traveled to Homedale for a semi-final state tournament football game, with about 500 of their faithful fans. In Homedale, it was hard to find open area businesses because everyone was at the game. Bands played, fans tailgated, cheerleaders pumped up the fans, and the stands were packed!

It was a festive atmosphere on a shimmering sunny late fall afternoon. Folks commented on how warm it was for a mid-November day. Grandparents sat in the stands cheering for grandsons. Local patrons and supporters were there to support their community’s team. Moms and dads stood by worriedly, applauding their teams and (sometimes) questioning calls of the referees. Children and teens were everywhere.

Then there were the bright colors: Sugar-Salem’s players wore royal blue and white; Homedale dressed in white on red. It was the very picture of patriotic America as the national anthem was performed by the Homedale band and the contest got underway.

The game was hard fought, as you might expect. The winner would move on to play the Weiser Wolverines in the championship the next week. In the end, Sugar-Salem triumphed, and the Diggers went home to eastern Idaho victorious, while the Trojans of Homedale celebrated another in a long string of successful seasons. (The following Friday a huge crowd filled Holt Arena in Pocatello for an exciting contest between Sugar and Weiser, with the Wolverines winning the state title on the final play of the game.)

But, as any rural Idahoan call tell you, small-town schools are much more than sports teams and mascots. They’re about strong academics in support of community priorities, often in agriculture-related courses. They’re about college-prep offerings (dual credit courses funded by our legislature). They’re about professional-technical courses such as welding, construction, and automotive. They’re about small-town schools as the center of the community.

Contrast this with the dismal future envisioned by Wayne Hoffman and his Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF). IFF would love nothing better than to defund rural schools and replace them with… well, they have no idea. We hear allusions to vouchers and tax credits, “free market” solutions designed to improve “school choice”.

But, contrary to what Hoffman would have you believe, vouchers and tax credits would hurt rural public schools, and take rural school dollars to fund private school tuition for wealthy kids in the urban areas of Idaho. Almost three-quarters of Idaho’s private school students attend school in four counties: Ada (Boise), Canyon (Nampa), Twin Falls, and Bannock (Pocatello). And twenty Idaho counties have no private schools at all!

There is plenty of evidence that private school vouchers would harm small, rural schools, and especially disadvantage poor students and families in those districts. This story from Indiana, one of the states with a large voucher program, is just one of many examples, and affirms the damage that is done to rural schools by private school vouchers.

Hoffman and his cronies at IFF want to destroy Idaho public schools, rural and urban. “Public schools are grotesque… I don’t think government should be in the education business,” he has said.

Think about the implications of this radical point of view. What do we lose if Hoffman and his followers get their way? The special sense of community in rural towns will erode. The feeling of belonging will deteriorate. Small-town charm and connection, which we appreciate in Idaho, will become scarce. School jobs will disappear, and school districts in small towns are often the largest employers.

Let your local legislators know that you value rural public schools, and that you don’t want to see them torn apart to fund private school vouchers. From Council to Ririe, from Riggins to Potlatch, the time is now to protect our Idaho rural public schools.

Co-written by former Idaho school superintendents Don Coberly, Geoffrey Thomas and Wil Overgaard. 

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