Should Idaho voters have input on school vouchers? House Republicans say ‘no’

·5 min read
Sarah A. Miller/smiller@idahostatesman.com

As Idaho lawmakers debate various school voucher proposals, a Lewiston Republican suggested putting to voters whether taxpayer funds should subsidize private school tuition.

The House rejected the idea Tuesday, after calling the language of the proposed question biased and claiming a ballot question would invite influence from lobbying groups.

Amid a nationwide push among conservatives to free up public funds for private school, known colloquially as providing “school choice,” Idaho Republicans this legislative session have pitched a handful of bills to create education savings accounts. That’s a mechanism for families to collect publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schooling. None of the proposals have cleared the House and Senate.

Rep. Lori McCann, R-Lewiston, proposed a question on the November 2024 ballot asking voters to weigh in on the debate. The advisory question would have no legal weight but would serve as a tool for lawmakers to gauge voter interest.

McCann is the vice chair of the House Education Committee, which this session has blocked school voucher proposals from advancing to the full House. The proposed question would have asked whether the state should direct “public tax dollars to private K-12 schools, including private religious schools, and for-profit schools.”

“This is to say to the people, ‘Are you comfortable with this? Do you want this or do you not want this?’” McCann told the House on Tuesday.

Other House Republicans said the language was misleading because it didn’t include information about specific proposals, “school choice,” or the detail that education savings accounts allow funding to “follow the student.”

“It doesn’t mention parents. It doesn’t mention choice,” said Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, who earlier this month sponsored an unsuccessful bill directing about $6,800 annually to private school families. “I’m concerned that this doesn’t offer a fair, reasonable question, even if we thought it was important to ask the question.”

Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, said lobbyists will influence a ballot question, and lawmakers are better off debating specific legislation while communicating about it with constituents.

“All we will get is the result of who campaigned the hardest, and I really don’t think that’s the best way to make a decision,” Miller said.

It’s “naive” to think groups interested in education funding aren’t already spending money to influence policy, said Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise. Political donors that helped pass education savings account policies in other states have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Idaho elections backing voucher-friendly candidates, Idaho Capital Sun reported.

“They’re spending money to just get me out of office and keep you in office,” Mathias told the House on Tuesday. “That’s where the money is being spent now. So if they have to spend some of that money to convince Idahoans to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ it’s going to be spent anyway.”

Directing public funds to religious schools is outlawed by the Idaho Constitution in the so-called Blaine Amendment. But federal courts in recent years have nullified similar prohibitions in other states, meaning a successful school voucher policy in Idaho could overcome a constitutional challenge.

Public opinion unclear after polling on ‘school choice’

Anticipating the debate over school vouchers this session, a few groups, including the Idaho Statesman, recently asked Idaho residents to weigh in, with mixed results.

The October Statesman poll asked 550 Idahoans, whose political affiliations nearly matched the statewide ratio of partisan voter registration, “Should taxpayer money be used to help residents pay for private school educations? Or not?”

According to the results, 63% of all adults surveyed said taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to help residents pay for private school, while 23% of respondents said it should be used. The remaining 14% of respondents said they weren’t sure.

The Mountain States Policy Center, a conservative think tank that has advocated for “school choice” proposals, reached similar demographics with a November survey.

The group asked, “The state of Idaho currently spends $8,900 per student for public education. There is a proposal to give parents control of that money through an Education Savings Accounts [sic]. These accounts would allow parents to take all of the state funding for public education and spend it on the school or program of their family’s choosing. Knowing this, would you support or oppose Idaho implementing education savings accounts?”

According to the results, 47% said they would support education savings accounts, and 40% were opposed.

The survey also asked, “Generally speaking, do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of ‘school choice’ as an education policy? If you aren’t sure or never heard of school choice, just say so.”

Forty percent responded that they have a favorable opinion of “school choice,” and 35% said they’d never heard of it.

Chris Cargill, president and CEO of the Mountain States Policy Center, wrote in a recent column that McCann’s proposed question was overly simplistic.

“If lawmakers want to really know what voters think about a particular proposal, they should put the actual policy on the ballot, with all the details, in a binding referendum, not ask voters to weigh in on a one sentence soundbite without the details of what is on the table,” Cargill wrote.

Closing Tuesday’s House debate, McCann said the theme during “school choice” debates this session has been whether tax dollars should go to private schools.

“Words do matter, and that’s why this question is simple,” she said. “I feel like people are afraid to actually hear what the people want.”