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Legislators need to disclose any self-interest in “school choice” bill

Tom Arkoosh - 02/20/2023

The Idaho Legislature is preparing to vote on legislation that would require Idaho taxpayers to foot the bill for K-12 private, home and religious schooling. Senate Bill 1038 would allow parents to receive $5,950 from the state treasury for each child receiving instruction outside of the public school system.

Much has been said about the proposal, which has strong support from the Idaho Freedom Foundation and other organizations funded by dark money from out-of-state special interests. Many Idahoans are concerned that the scheme would devastate Idaho’s public school system, which has suffered from chronic underfunding. Others point out that the lion’s share of funds would subside the education of kids who are not presently in public school. The plan is a take-off from the Arizona plan where 78% of the $7,000 education savings account payments last fall went to families who did not have a child in public school.

The price tag of these schemes generally skyrockets over the years, once the proverbial camel gets its nose under the tent. The cost of this plan more than doubled in one month–from $20 million in January to $45 million in February. States with programs that started with moderate initial outlays have experienced dramatic cost increases. The programs highly favor urban areas where private schools are concentrated.

On top of all that, these kinds of programs have virtually no accountability. Senate Bill 1038 specifically states that the plan, “does not permit any government agency to exercise control or supervision over any nonpublic school or homeschooling.” The bill provides for a six-member “oversight committee” composed of parents who receive money from the program to give the appearance of doing something to safeguard taxpayer money. Cynics might say this is like the fox guarding the hen house.

There is one important issue that has not received much attention–whether legislators or their immediate families may have a financial interest in this bill. Any legislator whose family would be eligible for the $5,950 per child payments from the state treasury must speak out and clear the air. For instance, if a legislator’s family has children who are or may be in private or religious schools, the legislator should make a clean breast of it.

With a bill of such broad application, it may be that some legislators have overlooked the fact that they may be self interested. It is hoped that a polite reminder will cause them to come forth to ensure that public decorum and integrity are maintained.

For instance, one of the bill sponsors, Senator Brian Lenney, a “political refugee” from California, proclaimed on his campaign website that he and his wife have “been homeschooling our four kids (who are now in K-12) for over a decade.” Senator Lenney could be eligible for $23,800 in taxpayer funds if the bill passes. He should publicly disclose that fact before voting takes place on the bill. He could then either decline to vote on the bill or pledge that his family would not seek funding under the legislation.

Any legislator who has children enrolled in private or religious schools or who is home schooling should do likewise, just to clear the air. Those whose families are closely associated with private or church schools should disclose the potential conflict. Senator Lori Den Hartog, whose husband serves on the Board of Directors of Nampa Christian Schools, would do well to disclose, as should those legislators whose children attend those fine schools. In the event the bill passes, voters should not be surprised to learn after the fact that their legislator’s children are benefiting from taxpayer education money. Government is best when it operates in the light of day.

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