Many rural Idaho counties don’t have private schools. What vouchers would mean for them

Challis, the seat and largest city in Custer County, is home to about 1,000 people, two public schools and no private schools. If a Challis resident wanted to attend a private school, the closest option is in Sun Valley — 119 miles away.

Twenty of Idaho’s 44 counties didn’t have a private school as of December, according to data compiled by the Idaho State Department of Education and analyzed by the Idaho Statesman. Of the state’s 120 private schools, about three in four were in one of four counties: Ada, Canyon, Kootenai and Twin Falls.

A handful of Republican lawmakers this session pushed legislation that would have diverted public school funds to private and home-school families through education savings accounts, a private school voucher mechanism. “School choice” advocates argued Idaho parents should be able use their tax dollars at their preferred school, even if it’s private.

But the lack of private school options in rural areas, and the concentration of private schools in urban areas, means that under a school voucher system, rural taxpayers would subsidize urban private schools at their own expense.

“Rural schools depend heavily on state funding,” Dale Layne, of the Idaho Rural Schools Association, told lawmakers last month. Education savings accounts and vouchers “siphon dollars away from the rural schools to pay for students mostly in urban areas.”

A funding issue and a tax issue

A bill from Sen. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, which the Senate rejected, would have allowed private school families to collect about $6,000 in state funds every year for tuition and other education expenses.

Nichols estimated her proposal would cost the state about $45 million in the first year. Independent analysts estimated the cost in the following years could reach $360 million. Nichols told lawmakers it was a “myth” that education savings accounts harm rural schools.

“Students who live in rural areas deserve choice in education just as much as students who live in more populated areas,” she said during a public hearing last month.

There are no private schools in Custer, Lehmi and Butte counties, altogether an expanse of more than 10,000 square miles between Montana and Southern Idaho where public school is the only option aside from home-school.

And even home-schoolers rely on the public system for testing, extracurricular activities and other resources, Challis resident Sheri Hughes told lawmakers last month.

In Wendell, a 2,900-population city in Southern Idaho, a three-school district in rural Gooding County provides resources to home-schooled students as well, such as speech therapy programs.

When it comes to the potential for school vouchers, Superintendent Tim Perrigot said he’s less worried about private schools — there are several in the Twin Falls area — than the large amount of nearby home-school families who could qualify for state funds.

“There’s only so much money in the pot,” Perrigot told the Idaho Statesman by phone. “We’re all about school choice, we just don’t want to lose those tax dollars for our district.”

In some cases, a Wendell school has one teacher per subject, Perrigot said, meaning losing funds to pay a math or science teacher could mean losing a subject. A $1.2 million supplemental levy every two years helps pay for staff where state funds fall short.

“We ask our community to support us and try to find ways to keep our programs intact,” Perrigot said. “It’s just what you do in a small town.”

This year, the Idaho Legislature appropriated $3.4 billion for K-12 public schools. But school districts, including Challis, this month asked local property taxpayers to fund more than $1 billion in bonds and levies to supplement funding shortfalls.

That included districts in 16 of the 20 counties without a private school.

Diverting money to private schools creates inequities for rural areas not only in school funding but also in taxes, said Rod Gramer, president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, a coalition of business leaders that has opposed school voucher proposals. When private schools in urban areas are fed a piece of the school funding pie, rural taxpayers give up a piece, then pick up the tab if they have to raise property taxes to account for lost funds.

“Rural communities will eventually be subsidizing the tuition for students in the cities, like Boise, Coeur d’Alene and others, to attend private religious schools, while local property taxpayers have to pick up the slack by raising their own property taxes,” Gramer told the Statesman by phone.

A ‘complement’ to public schools?

Sponsors of other “school choice” legislation sought to account for the potential hit to rural schools.

Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, proposed a bill expanding an existing state grant program to add $12 million for private school tuition. Den Hartog told lawmakers this month that rural families could collect grants for micro-schools, small independent schools created by parents — a trend popularized during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have parts of the state of Idaho where there are not non-public schools, and that’s certainly true,” Den Hartog told the Senate Education Committee. “We know that the folks in rural Idaho face different issues than folks in urban Idaho.”

A bill from Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, would have allowed families leaving public schools for private alternatives to collect 80% of the average per student state funding — about $7,000. The remaining 20% would have stayed with the public school district that the students left.

“The bill is, in my opinion, a complement to our existing public schools,” Clow told the House Education Committee this month. “It is not an attempt to defund public schools.”

Paul Stark, executive director of the Idaho Education Association, told the committee that the statewide teachers union would oppose bills like Clow’s while public schools need money “so desperately,” they’re asking their communities to tax themselves.

“This Legislature should first meet its constitutional mandate of adequately funding its public education,” Stark said.

While “school choice” bills this session found favor in the voucher-friendly Senate Education Committee, the corresponding House panel — chaired by Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, a former teacher — rejected Clow’s bill and others.

Den Hartog and Horman’s bill was scheduled for a House Education hearing this week, but it was pulled from the agenda after it failed to garner support in private conversations with committee members, Idaho Education News first reported.