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Idaho’s Myth of School Choice

Idaho’s Myth of School Choice

Ronald M. Nate, Ph.D.
January 22, 2024

“School choice” in Idaho is a myth. Elected officials and educators talk about all the options parents may choose from to get the best education for their children, but the reality is they only get to choose limited public options (other public schools or charter schools). Two weeks ago, the governor proposed his “choice” plan to add a microscopic $605,000 to “accelerate” charter schools.  It’s almost insulting. 

Any “choice” beyond the public schools requires parents to pay twice: once for taxes and a second time for private tuition. That’s not freedom, that’s not true choice, it’s a scam set up to protect the public education complex. Sadly, children, and their futures, are the victims. 

Today is the start of National School Choice Week. We will see yellow-scarved proponents of school choice strolling in and around the Idaho Capitol. Perhaps there will be a school choice speech on the steps, followed by the perennial stonewalling from the “leaders” in the Capitol who are more concerned about protecting a failed public education system than in improving children’s education. It’s a tired re-run we’ve seen many times. 

It's time for a reality check. Take a look at two telling statistics in Idaho. First, reading and math proficiency for Idaho 8th graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were just 32% and 28%, in 2003. Nineteen years later, those same tests yielded just 32% and 32% proficiency — near zero progress. The raw numbers are startling. This dismal outcome reveals 15,983 third graders who cannot read at grade level, leaving only 7,521 who can. 

Second, let’s consider the record on spending. Could it be that schools need more resources? Since 2003, K-12 education spending in Idaho has increased from $986 million to over $3.2 billion in 2022. We have TRIPLED state spending on schools and education, yet we have seen student performance go nowhere.  

We are constantly told public schools can’t possibly succeed without more money. Then, lawmakers dedicate more money, but it’s never enough. Idaho’s government education system is like the curse Sisyphus faced, but worse. Lawmakers push that rock, and it doesn’t go up the hill at all, yet they continue to hope. Lawmakers push harder, to no avail. Elected officials who should know better keep believing the statists and educators who say, “Just push harder.” But the rock stays. And it will never move. 

This isn’t merely a frustrating exercise in public policy. This is real life. This is real children getting sloppy education, poor results, while the “adults” in the room are more interested in protecting their slice of the political pie than they are about the true well-being of the kids. The data doesn’t lie, but the power players do. And legislators buy it every time.   

Can 2024 be different? There are a few proposals circulating the Capitol to provide some form of school choice. Sen. Den Hartog and Rep. Horman are proposing an Education Tax Credit bill which would reimburse (or even prepay) families for private school tuition when they choose education options outside the public school system. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s a start. And, evidence shows, the competition for education dollars will improve private and public schools alike. 

Until then, school choice in Idaho is a myth. You don’t have a choice when all your options are from the same public education assembly line. To get real school choice, legislators must stop pushing rocks and instead change the paradigm. Idaho is paying tons for education. It’s time we saw some results. Support legislators who support true school choice. Your children will thank you.

This post was updated on January 26, 2024 at 10:28 am MST to correct a grammatical error and correct a rounding error for the 2022 total public school appropriations figure.

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