The Mountain States Policy Center (MSPC), which bills itself as a “free-market-oriented think tank,” has been promoting what it calls a “school choice” plan. The words conjure up visions of parents being offered a variety of school options from which they can pick and choose. Actually, the options are the same ones that are presently available to parents–public, private and parochial. The only change with MSPC’s plan is that all options would be paid for with dollars extracted from Idaho taxpayers. It is, in essence, a tax-and-spend proposal that would force taxpayers to finance private and religious schooling, in addition to paying for the public education system.
If implemented, the MSPC plan could well provoke a taxpayer revolt, presuming that the State finally begins financing the public school system in the manner required by the Idaho Constitution. Idaho has long been in violation of the constitutional mandate to adequately fund its public schools. It has also failed to shoulder its legal obligation to pay for new school buildings and maintenance of existing facilities, forcing local school districts to finance those heavy costs with property taxes.
Governor Little has proposed a substantial increase in public school funding and the Legislature is finally looking at ways to provide state funding for construction and maintenance of school buildings. It will be very expensive to fund both of those essential constitutional mandates. If we do, can we really afford to also start paying for private and religious schooling with taxpayer dollars? If we don’t, the State may well find itself in court, defending a school funding lawsuit.
In any event, we already have school choice in Idaho. The voters essentially adopted a school choice program when they ratified the Idaho Constitution in 1890. The Constitution commanded the Legislature “to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools” and gave it the authority to require “every child” to “attend the…public school…unless educated by other means.” So, parents had the right to educate their kids, free of charge, in public schools, but they were given the choice of sending them to private or religious schools, at their own expense. So it has remained to the present day.
School choice is merely a plan to shift some of the cost of private schooling from parents of private and parochial students to the tax-paying public. MSPC has touted the school choice program recently implemented in Arizona, describing it as giving “all families in the state a $7,000 Education Savings Account (ESA). An ESA is one education freedom tool that allows parents access to some or all of the dollars that were supposed to be allocated to their child’s education.” However, the plan has mainly been a bonanza for folks whose kids don’t go to public school. Last fall, over 8,100 families applied for the $7,000 ESAs and it is reported that 78% of them did not then have a child in Arizona’s public schools.
MSPC has tried to show that Idahoans support its choice plan, commissioning a poll showing 40% of respondents had a favorable opinion of “school choice” and 47% supported “education savings accounts.” However, veteran political reporter Betsy Russell has pointed to a larger Idaho Statesman poll showing that 63% of respondents opposed spending taxpayer money for private school education. When tax revenues are at risk, those who pay taxes are not so keen about paying for private schooling.
Reclaim Idaho, which forced the State to substantially increase education funding in last year’s special legislative session, has the best answer for improving education outcomes–fund public schools adequately and don’t waste precious tax dollars by subsidizing private and parochial schooling. Taxpayers can have their say by supporting a petition launched by the group that opposes big-spending ESA-style schemes.