Editorial: Legislature should support true education reform in approving $6 million federal grant | Editorials

Citizens should be paying attention to House bill 294, which would use state tax dollars for grants and scholarships to families to send their children to private schools.

The bill is careful not to mention vouchers, but let’s not play around: this is a school voucher program. We think the legislature should abandon this idea, and support more tangible benefits to young Idahoans, like approving the $6 million federal grant for early childhood education, which lawmakers rejected earlier this month.

Our concern with HB 294 is rooted in the Idaho Constitution. The state’s founding document details the legislature’s responsibility to provide a free, uniform education system in Article IX, Section 1 of the Idaho Constitution. It also specifically prohibits giving money to parochial schools — private schools tied to a religious entity.

Idaho is already lacking when it comes to funding a uniform education system, as evidenced by the 46 school districts that sought voter approval for $299.6 million in bonds and levies in last week’s election, Idaho Education News reported. The state faces a teacher shortage because we don’t pay these professionals enough. We should not take money away from an already strained system to fund private schools.

The Strong Students Scholarship program in the bill would give 90% of the money the state spends per-student to parents to use on non-public education, such as private schools or home-schooling, the Post Register reported. The state paid an average of $6,713 per student last school year, meaning the new bill would allow a student to transfer to a private school and use $6,041 of that funding.

We don’t want to see Idaho syphoning money away from a public school system that is already underfunded. The bill aims to give families choices, which we commend, but it undermines the state’s constitutional responsibility “to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”

We’re concerned that, if this bill is signed into law, private schools would be allowed to take government money with no accountability measures. Right now, non-government schools can accept or deny any student for any reason. There are no requirements for regular assessments, and no learning goals to be met. We know there are many private schools offering a terrific education for kids, but there should be more accountability where public dollars are concerned.

We agree with the legislature that our education system needs help. But this bill is not the way to help.

What would be helpful is our legislators accepting the federal early learning grant, which would provide $6 million to support pre-kindergarten programs, something we desperately need in this state.

Historically, pre-K happened in the home. Most Idaho families can’t afford to lose one spouse’s income. Things are even more precarious for single-income households. We would love to see every family able to prepare their children for kindergarten at home, but the reality is, this isn’t possible.

We are one of four states without state funding for early learning. A fall Idaho Reading Indicator found that almost six out of 10 children come to kindergarten not ready to read. If our children aren’t prepared to learn this fundamental skill, we’re in trouble.

Learning is a universal life experience. The legislature should support every Idaho child’s journey in education, from start to finish.

Editorials are based on the majority opinion of the Idaho Press editorial board, comprised of community members Rod Gramer, Rosie Delgadillo Reilly, Tracy Watt and Pat Klocke, and Idaho Press President and Publisher Matt Davison. Idaho Press managing editor Holly Beech and city editor Tess Fox are non-voting members. Views expressed in the editorial do not necessarily represent unanimous agreement among all board members.

Degadillo Reilly was absent. Klocke dissented.