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House Education Committee narrowly kills private school tuition bill

Blake Jones 03/01/2022

The House Education Committee Tuesday killed a bill to allow families to spend state funds on private school tuition and fees.

The 8-7 vote to hold the bill headed off a motion to send House Bill 669’s “Hope and Opportunity Scholarship Program” to the House floor.

The bill would have allowed families to spend up to $5,950 per student on private school tuition and fees, laptops and other education-related costs out of “education savings accounts.”

Opponents argued HB 669 would gut state oversight of taxpayer funds, divert money away from public education and fly in the face of the Idaho Constitution.

“I am not convinced this is the gold standard. I am not convinced that this is ready for prime time. And I know it isn’t following the Constitution as it is written,” said Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell.

Backers said the bill would help students afford schools that fit their needs, signal trust in parents’ decisionmaking and usher in mutually beneficial competition between private and public schools.

“Our public schools can use some competition. It will make them better. Competition makes everything better,” Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, said before voting against holding the bill in committee.

The bill met staunch opposition from a half dozen public school groups and agencies during a public hearing Monday — with reps from the State Department of Education, Idaho School Boards Association and Idaho Education Association among them.

Those groups’ concerns were front and center in the committee’s long debate Tuesday.

Constitutional questions

Much of the debate hinged on the constitutionality of funding private schools with public money.

“The constitution of the state of Idaho mandates the Legislature provide a ‘uniform and thorough system’ — and I emphasize the word ‘system’ — ‘of public, free, common schools,’” said Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls. “I think this bill clearly crosses that line.”

But multiple advocates pointed to a landmark 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which held that a Montana scholarship program that covered tuition at secular private schools but not religious private schools was unconstitutional.

Supportive lawmakers argued the case takes precedence over the Idaho Constitution.

“It has rendered our Blaine Amendment inapplicable,” bill co-sponsor Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle said, referring to an amendment to the Idaho Constitution that bars the state from funding religious organizations, including parochial schools.

But Rep. Lori McCann, R-Lewiston, a former paralegal program professor, said the Supreme Court decision would only prevent Idaho from covering tuition at some private schools but not others. The Supreme Court decision would only void part of Idaho’s so-called Blaine Amendment if the state began covering private school tuition. And it wouldn’t clear the way for Idaho to fund private schools against the Constitution.

“By opening the door, ladies, … I believe that we are opening this up for a huge amount of cost to the state,” McCann said.

‘Critical race theory’ and accountability

Committee Democrats, and some Republicans, invoked lawmakers’ continued push against critical race theory.

Because the bill would prevent the state from requiring a private school receiving funds from altering its “creed, practices … or curriculum,” they said, Idaho could end up funding schools that use the divisive teachings that Statehouse Republicans are trying to legislate against.

The bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, said Idaho’s law opposing critical race theory provided a protection against that.

The law doesn’t ban the teaching of critical race theory, but it bars the state from spending money on public schools that preach discriminatory tenets it attributes to critical race theory. The law doesn’t apply to private schools.

But Moon maintained that because the State Department of Education would choose which private schools would be eligible to receive funds, the department could prevent the state from funding teachings the Legislature doesn’t agree with.

Debate about accountability stretched from those curriculum concerns to standardized testing and financial transparency.

“To keep accountability in our system, we have asked for assessments. We’ve debated the (Idaho Reading Indicator) and the (Idaho Standards Achievement Test). We’ve debated curriculum,” said Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding. “Where in this bill would (it) make a private school accountable to all of our taxpayer dollars?”

DeMordaunt said that because the SDE could audit parents’ payouts out of the savings accounts, and because the Idaho attorney general could investigate expenses, accountability would be sufficient.

“Those funds are highly transparent and absolutely audited and reviewed in ways that perhaps not even our traditional public schools are,” DeMordaunt said.

The bill

To be eligible for the Hope and Opportunity Scholarship, families would have had to earn below 250% of the income cap for free-and-reduced lunch, a common measure of student poverty. That would make upwards of 65% of Idaho families eligible, per national school choice group EdChoice’s estimate.

Through a mix of eligibility requirements, the bill was meant to exclude current private school students and homeschool students from participating. It was geared at students making the switch from public schools to private schools and students enrolling in school for the first time.

The vote

DeMordaunt and Moon brought the bill forward earlier this month. They both voted against holding it in committee, alongside fellow Reps. Boyle; Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls; Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene; Codi Galloway, R-Boise; and Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls.

Marshall joined Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls; Vice Chairman Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth; and Reps. Yamamoto; McCann; Toone; Steve Berch, D-Boise; and John McCrostie, D-Garden City, in voting to hold the bill.

The nail-biter vote could have gone the other way. Clow told Kerby on a live mic after the meeting that he almost voted against holding the bill in committee.

With Tuesday’s vote, it’s not immediately clear whether other iterations of the proposal have a future in the Legislature. But for now, HB 669 is dead.

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