House education committee narrowly kills private school tuition bill

Originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org March 1, 2022

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

The 8-7 vote to retain the bill preceded a motion to send House Bill 669“Hope and Opportunity Scholarship Program” on the House floor.

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

Opponents argued that HB 669 would eliminate state oversight of taxpayer funds, divert money from public education, and violate the Idaho Constitution.

“I’m not convinced it’s the gold standard. I’m not convinced it’s ready for prime time. Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell.

Funders said the bill would help students afford schools that meet their needs, signal confidence in parental decision-making, 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 with fierce opposition from half a dozen public school groups and agencies during a public hearing monday — with representatives from the State Department of Education, the Idaho School Boards Association, and the Idaho Education Association.

The concerns of these groups were at the center of the committee’s lengthy debate on Tuesday.

Constitutional issues

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

“The Idaho State Constitution requires the Legislature to provide a “uniform and complete system” — and I emphasize the word “system” — “public, free, common schools,” said Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls. “I think this bill clearly crosses that line.”

But several advocates pointed to a historic decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in 2020, which tenuous that a Montana scholarship program that covered tuition in secular private schools but not religious private schools was unconstitutional.

Supporting lawmakers argued that the case took precedence over the Idaho Constitution.

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

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

“By opening the door, ladies, … I believe we’re opening this at enormous cost to the state,” McCann said.

“Critical race theory” and responsibility

Democrats on the committee and some Republicans have cited lawmakers’ continued pressure against critical race theory.

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

The bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, said Idaho Law opposition to critical race theory offered protection against this.

The law does not prohibit the teaching of critical race theory, but it does prohibit the state from spending money on public schools that preach discriminatory principles it attributes to critical race theory . The law does not apply to private schools.

But Moon argued that because the state Department of Education would choose which private schools would be eligible to receive funding, the department could prevent the state from funding education the legislature disagrees with. .

The accountability debate has expanded from such curriculum concerns to standardized testing and financial transparency.

“To keep accountability in our system, we asked for reviews. We discussed the (Idaho Reading Indicator) and the (Idaho Standards Achievement Test). We debated the program,” Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, said. “Where in this bill would he (she) make a private school responsible for all of our taxpayers’ money?”

DeMordaunt said that because SDE can verify parents’ payments to savings accounts and because the Idaho attorney general can investigate expenses, liability would be sufficient.

“These funds are highly transparent and absolutely audited and reviewed in a way that even our traditional public schools may not be,” DeMordaunt said.

The law project

To be eligible for the Hope and Opportunity Scholarship, families would have had to earn less than 250% of the income cap for free and reduced lunch, a common measure of student poverty. That would make more than 65% of Idaho families eligible, according to the estimate by national school choice group EdChoice.

Through a mix of eligibility requirements, the bill sought to exclude current private school students and homeschool students from participation. It was aimed at students moving from public schools to private schools and students enrolling in school for the first time.

Vote

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

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

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

With Tuesday’s vote, it’s not immediately clear if further iterations of the proposal have a future in the Legislative Assembly. But for now, HB 669 is dead.

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