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After longwinded debate, Senate kills controversial school choice bill

Sadie Dittenber - 02/27/2023


A divisive education savings account (ESA) bill died in the Senate Monday afternoon — in a 12-23 vote that came after over two hours of floor debate.


Senate Bill 1038 would have established a universal education savings account program, providing $5,950 scholarships to students who are homeschooled, or attend non-public schools. The money could be used for private school tuition and fees, uniforms, textbooks and other education-related expenses.


Sens. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, and Brian Lenney, R-Nampa, presented the bill, repeating its stated purpose — to expand school choice for all Idaho students.


Nichols and Lenney estimated that, at most, 2% of Idaho students would take advantage of the program in its first year — a figure they based on other states’ ESA programs. The bill would have funded ESAs for those students, plus an online vendor and related administrative costs. Nichols said the bill would cost $45 million in its first year, a number that could be adjusted in future years.


But opponents quickly took issue with the bill’s price tag and its lack of accountability measures.


Several Republicans voiced their support for school choice and ESA programs broadly, but withheld their support for SB 1038 due to funding concerns.


Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said the bill would cause a “expansion of government,” requiring more state employees and more administrative costs. Sen. Ben Adams, R-Nampa, agreed, calling the bill a “new government program.”


And Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, said the bill text would not prevent costs from ballooning in future years.


“We all have the responsibility to make sure our budget is balanced,” said Grow. “I can’t even decide how to balance the budget if I don’t even know what this is going to cost.”


Other lawmakers said ESA programs should not be a priority when the public school system still faces staffing shortages and extensive maintenance needs.


SB 1038 would have required random quarterly and annual audits, and the bill’s sponsors said Idaho parents and free-market competition would lead to better schools. But since Idaho’s non-public schools have no testing requirements and don’t report to the State Department of Education, some senators argued the bill would not provide adequate accountability for tax dollars or student outcomes.


“It’s actually against my conservative Republican perspective to hand this money out with no accountability that these precious tax dollars are being used wisely, or that they’re actually going to increase the goodwill of the students of Idaho,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls.


The next steps in the ESA debate were not immediately clear Monday afternoon.


The House Education Committee meets at 8 a.m. Tuesday. The first agenda item is listed simply as “ESA,” but the agenda doesn’t specify whether a new bill will emerge.


On Monday, Lent again suggested ESA legislation might be in the works — a bill that could achieve the same goals as SB 1038 but in a “more controlled manner.”


Reactions


Here’s what opponents and supporters had to say after Monday’s vote:


Idaho Education Association: “This is a significant win for public education.”


Mountain States Policy Center: “The education choice debate in Idaho’s current legislative session is still in the first couple of innings. Stay tuned.”


Reclaim Idaho: “This is a huge victory for Idaho that was made possible by the thousands of Idahoans across the state who took a stand for our public schools and said NO to vouchers.”


Idaho Freedom Foundation: “Now we know how far we need to go in making Idaho a truly conservative state.”


Idaho Freedom Caucus: “It is unfortunate that in a conservative, Republican state, legislation that promotes universal educational freedom did not receive enough support.”


Young Americans for Liberty: “The Idaho Senate was handed the perfect school choice bill on a silver platter this week — but, disappointingly, turned it down.”


Roll call


Monday’s decisive 12-23 vote was a stark reversal. It came less than two weeks after SB 1038 passed Senate Education on a 6-3 vote.


Here’s the Senate roll call vote:


Yes: Carl Bjerke, R-Coeur d’Alene; Cindy Carlson, R-Riggins; Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian; Dan Foreman, R-Moscow; Phil Hart, R-Kellogg; Scott Herndon, R-Sagle; Brian Lenney, R-Nampa; Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton; Doug Okuniewicz, R-Hayden; Ben Toews, R-Coeur d’Alene; Chris Trakel, R-Caldwell; Glenneda Zuiderveld, R-Twin Falls.


No: Ben Adams, R-Nampa; Kelly Anthon, R-Burley; Treg Bernt, R-Meridian; Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton; Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls; C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle; Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon; Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs; Linda Wright Hartgen, R-Twin Falls; Rick Just, D-Boise; Todd Lakey, R-Nampa; Abby Lee, R-Fruitland; Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls; Ali Rabe, D-Boise; Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg; James Ruchti, D-Pocatello; Geoff Schroeder, R-Mountain Home; Carrie Semmelroth, D-Boise; Ron Taylor, D-Hailey; Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree; Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise; Chuck Winder, R-Boise; Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise.


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