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Statehouse roundup, 2.2.23: School choice debate continues; Yamamoto pushes facilities issue

Kevin Richert and Sadie Dittenber - 02/02/2023


Approximately 17% of students — excluding students at private schools or homeschools or who take part in open enrollment — are attending public schools of choice, according to State Department of Education data.


Michelle Clement Taylor, the SDE’s school choice coordinator, presented that number to the Senate Education Committee Thursday, during a discussion about school choice in Idaho.


SDE officials place several options under the umbrella of school choice: public charter schools, magnet schools, alternative schools, district or charter online schools, homeschools and private schools. They also contend that dual enrollment and open enrollment, Advanced Opportunities and Empowering Parents further expand the landscape.


At least 57,420 students are attending public schools of choice in 2022-23:


  • 29,741 students across 70 public charter schools.

  • 12,812 students across 22 district online schools.

  • 9,734 students across 24 magnet schools.

  • 5,133 students across 62 alternative schools.

Taylor said at least 11,000 students attend private schools across the state, based on the 120 schools that have registered with the secretary of state’s office. (Registration isn’t required for private schools.)


The exact number of students being homeschooled, Taylor said, is nearly impossible to measure.


Taylor’s presentation is embroiled in a larger discussion about school choice policy. This week, Senate Education introduced two pieces of legislation that, if passed, could have substantial impacts on education across the state.


One proposal, introduced by Sen. Brian Lenney, would remove Idaho’s Blaine Amendment, a constitutional clause that prevents public funds from being spent on religious education. The other bill, sponsored by Sen. Tammy Nichols, would establish an education savings account program, which would allow parents to use state money for private school tuition.


Lenney and Nichols had questions for Taylor and Greg Wilson, state superintendent Debbie Critchfield’s chief of staff, who joined Taylor at the podium Thursday afternoon.


Lenney, R-Nampa, asked the two why they avoided touching on education savings accounts during their presentation, calling out Critchfield for her resistance to the idea in a previous meeting.


“The scope of our presentation today was really on the existing landscape, within a broader definition of what choice options we have,” Wilson responded.


And Nichols asked why EdChoice, a national nonprofit with a mission to “advance educational freedom and choice for all,” doesn’t list Idaho among the 32 states it has determined to use “school choice programs.”


Wilson again referred to a “broader” scope of school choice definitions.


“We contend very strongly that Idaho has a lot of school choice,” Wilson said. “I know there’s a conversation and a debate that’s happening around education savings accounts…and we’ll have that discussion, but…there’s a broad spectrum of school choice and…the debate about what tools work for Idaho is being had as we speak.”


Wilson and Taylor gave a similar presentation in the House Education Committee Thursday morning.


Yamamoto on facilities issue: ‘We’re going to hit things head on’

Julie Yamamoto asked for volunteers Thursday.


The House Education chairwoman asked committee members to take a closer look at a damning state report on Idaho’s aging school buildings — and its policy recommendations.


“We’re going to hit things head on,” said Yamamoto, R-Caldwell.


Released in January 2022, the Office of Performance Evaluations study tried to get a handle on the state of disrepair across Idaho’s school facilities. The numbers were incomplete — only 77 of Idaho’s 115 school districts responded — but OPE estimated that it would cost $847 million to get these districts’ schools back to “good” condition.


The OPE, the Legislature’s research arm, also pointed out several policy concerns.


  • The Legislature has not asked for a statewide school buildings assessment since 1993.

  • Districts are supposed to submit building maintenance plans to the state every 10 years, and update these plans after five years. But from 2016 to 2020, only 33 districts submitted plans, and the state doesn’t do much with the reports anyway.

  • The state uses a cost factor to estimate the replacement value of school buildings: $81.45 per square foot. But the state hasn’t updated that figure since 2008.

Yamamoto said she would like lawmakers to be “responsive” to the OPE study, so she would like committee members to drill down into these three policy areas.


Last fall, a House-Senate working group looked at whether the state should do more to shoulder the cost of school construction and repair — a cost now borne almost entirely by local property owners. The working group members have not yet introduced any bills to address the issue.


Yamamoto was one of 10 lawmakers serving on the group.


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