‘What’s in it for them?’ This outside lobbying group is top spender in Idaho GOP primary

Ahead of the Tuesday GOP primary, Nampa voters received a provocative mailer about a legislative candidate. The mailer featured a photo of a young girl standing behind rusted bars, frowning, wearing a yellow backpack and holding a notebook. “Kenny Wroten voted to leave students trapped in the wrong schools!” the attack ad read.

The mailer slammed Wroten, an Idaho House member running for reelection, as a “liberal” legislator who rejected tax credits for families to send their children to private schools. Paid for by the Idaho Federation for Children political action committee, it was one of many mailers and ads the American Federation for Children has run and distributed in Idaho over the past few weeks.

The federation, a Dallas, Texas-based lobbying group focused on school choice, has spent $400,000 this election cycle, primarily to target three Republican candidates over school choice — around double the amount the group spent during the 2022 election, according to previous campaign reports first reported by the Idaho Capital Sun.

It is also listed as the second-highest spender on lobbying in Idaho this year, according to the secretary of state’s office — second only to Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian group that lobbied for a bill to subsidize private education last year.

The debate over school choice, often centered around providing funding for families who don’t send their kids to public school, has become a touch point this election cycle as groups have thrown hundreds of thousands of dollars into the races in hopes of getting their preferred candidates elected.

The federation’s other targets, in addition to Wroten, are Rep. Melissa Durrant, R-Kuna, and Rep. Richard Cheatum, R-Pocatello, all of whom opposed a bill that would have provided $50 million in tax rebates and grants for families whose children attend private schools or are home-schooled. The bill ultimately failed to make it through the Legislature. Ads that have run over the past few weeks accused the candidates of raising fees on Idaho families, siding with “radical liberal unions” and killing school choice.

The federation has also launched ads in support of Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, one of the sponsors of the tax credit bill this session, Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, and Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise.

Nathan Cunneen, a communications strategist for the group, told the Idaho Statesman that the Idaho Federation for Children PAC supports candidates fighting to create school choice opportunities in Idaho.

“It’s obvious that we need a broader coalition to pass school choice in Idaho,” he said in an email. “Regardless of ideology or position on other issues, we focus on legislators who do the hard work to advance and pass school choice for Idaho families.”

Wroten said he believes he has been heavily targeted because he was vocal this past legislative session against the parental tax credit bill. Parents are welcome to make choices that work best for their families, but the Idaho Constitution requires the Legislature to guarantee a “general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”

Wroten’s opponents are Amy Henry, a former educator and homeschool parent, and Steve Tanner, who has spoken out against allegations of critical race theory in schools and has advocated against school bonds, according to his election website.

“If you ... feel like your child needs something different, that is fine. But I don’t think that taxpayers should have to subsidize that,” Wroten told the Statesman. He said lawmakers have rejected many proposals that would subsidize private education, and yet the lobbying groups “seem to think that this issue hasn’t been hasn’t been addressed. It has. They just keep pushing.”

Idaho has long history of school choice legislation

Spending from the American Federation for Children doesn’t cover all of the money involved to push for funding private education this primary election. Though the federation focuses specifically on school choice, other top spenders this election cycle included Citizens Alliance of Idaho, which has also made expanding “education freedom” a top priority.

Idaho legislators over the past several years have introduced bills that would offer tax credits or provide educational savings accounts for families who choose private school or homeschooling for their kids, but they haven’t yet been successful.

During the 2023 session, legislators introduced a bill that would have created education savings accounts to let families who send their kids to private schools or those who home school their kids get state funding for tuition and other expenses. It failed in the Senate. The year before, lawmakers introduced a bill that would have created a similar program. That was narrowly rejected in a House committee.

Each year, sponsors vow to bring back bills using taxpayer money to help families fund private education, arguing that education isn’t one size fits all and the state should fund students, not systems. But the bills are always met with considerable opposition, including from education stakeholder groups, such as the teacher’s union and school boards association, over fears it would take money away from public schools. Sponsors often deny that characterization.

The influx of money around school choice has the potential to have a significant influence, experts said. In Idaho and other states, critics have often referred to the proposals as vouchers, though proponents have pushed back against that characterization. Supporters of school choice distinguish vouchers as state money that goes directly to private school tuition, while education savings accounts or tax credits are given to a family to provide additional resources, which can include private school tuition.

The Idaho Federation for Children PAC, a state project of the American Federation for Children has spent nearly all of the $400,000 donation it received from American Federation for Children’s victory fund this election cycle, according to the most recent reports filed with the secretary of state’s office. The vast majority of that spending was on independent expenditures, such as ads, mailers and brochures, and not given directly to candidates. A website called the Education Voter Guide that says it’s paid for by the Idaho Federation for Children PAC also compares candidates’ opinions on school choice measures, and supports those that have voted to fund private education.

The group was also among the top-four spenders on Facebook ads in Idaho over the past 90 days leading up to the election, according to Meta’s spending tracker. It has spent over $13,000 of its funding over the past 90 days on Meta, as of May 17.

The American Federation for Children has had significant successes in its previous campaigns in other states, Cunneen said, and the movement for school choice legislation is growing across the country — and, he believes, in Idaho. Cunneen said the group is hopeful its work this election cycle will help move the needle in Idaho even more.

“We fell short in Idaho this year, but the work we’re doing right now is helping to push us towards another shift in the status-quo to benefit students,” he said.

Wroten said he believes the negative campaign ads against him and other candidates provide little context and could sway newer voters. He said the ads don’t explain the reasons he opposed the tax credit bill. The ads say Wroten is a candidate who doesn’t care about Idaho students or families.

He said he fully supports parents who send their kids to private school or home-school their children, but that these bills are “not the avenue to fund that.”

Idaho group combats out-of-state money

An Idaho-based group has jumped into the race to fight against the rise in outside money focused on pushing private or home-school funding. Right 2 Learn, a political action committee created in part by a former Idaho school superintendent and Idaho Association of Counties employee, has raised about $150,000 this election cycle.

It has run a series of ads targeting Horman and supporting her opponent, Ammon Mayor Sean Coletti. It has also advocated for other Republican candidates who opposed the parental tax credit legislation, including Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, who chaired the House Education Committee.

Horman said she’s long championed school choice efforts and finding the best educational opportunities for children and will continue to do so. She said she is focused on her campaign, not on what third parties are doing. Her legislative district knows what her priorities are, she told the Statesman.

“I have a history of serving children in this county for over 31 years,” she said.

Right 2 Learn’s organizers said the PAC began because they saw out-of-state special interests “targeting Idaho with taxpayer-subsidized private school voucher schemes.” Those programs, they said, are a “drain on local school funding” and provide funds to wealthy families.

“As Republicans and parents who have had family members in both public and private schools, we believe Idaho can and should provide excellent educational opportunities for Idaho’s students while being fiscally responsible,” Chair Kerry Ellen Elliott and Treasurer Teresa Fabricius said in an email to the Statesman. “But private school vouchers fail the sniff test on achieving these goals. We’ve made the choice to support candidates who stand with us in these values.”

The group is largely supported by the Idaho Education Association, the teacher’s union, as first reported by IdahoEdNews. IEA spokesperson Mike Journee said Idaho families want local money to stay in their public schools and went after out-of-state groups for trying to influence Idaho elections.

“These shadowy, out-of-state interest groups with deep pockets come here to divide our communities, kill our public schools and line their own pockets at the expense of Idaho students and taxpayers,” he said in an email to the Statesman. “IEA members and their communities are fighting back, and as long as real Idahoans stand up for Idaho values, we will win.”

‘What’s in it for them?’

Similar groups have invested heavily in Idaho politics these past several years. Last year, the state’s top-spending lobbyists included the American Federation for Children and Young Americans for Liberty, according to previous Statesman reporting.

Ideological groups in particular are pouring in out-of-state money in elections across the country to advance their agendas, and often opting to spend the money on campaign ads instead of donating to the candidates directly, said Jaclyn Kettler, a political science associate professor at Boise State University.

“Campaign advertising can have an influence on voters, assessments of candidates and their decision making,” she said. “Not necessarily a huge effect, but if you move enough people, that could be pretty impactful.”

Across the country, many other states have passed laws that create voucher programs or education savings accounts for families who don’t attend public school.

Nearly 30 states have at least some kind of private school choice option, which can include tax credits, ESAs and vouchers, according to an analysis from Education Week. Some of the programs are targeted toward students with disabilities or low-income students, but other states, such as Utah and Arizona, have recently expanded or created options available to all students, regardless of income. In some cases, those programs have quickly ballooned.

“Idaho is one where, again, there hasn’t been success yet in actually passing through the Legislature, but they’re getting close in some ways,” Kettler said. “So I think there’s a perceived opportunity that probably is attracting more focus and attention at this point, perhaps compared to some other states.”

Wroten said voters who see negative ads from out-of-state groups should be skeptical of their material.

“Don’t believe those negative ads,” Wroten said. “You really should be asking yourself as a voter here in District 13: Why would groups from Dallas, Texas, be interested in Idaho and in my school? What’s in it for them?”