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Idaho’s School Choice Plan Must Be Really Good, Leftist Media Uses Sketchy Sources to Attack It

Idaho’s School Choice Plan Must Be Really Good, Leftist Media Uses Sketchy Sources to Attack It

Ronald M. Nate, Ph.D.
February 24, 2023

Idaho is on the cusp of passing legislation to truly benefit students who desperately need education opportunities different than they get in public schools. Senate bill S1038 creates annual Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) of $5,950 available to K-12 students in Idaho. The fiscal note about the cost of the program estimates 6,600 Idaho students would enroll in ESAs, at a cost of $45 million ($40 million for student ESAs and $5 million to set-up and administration costs).   

A new analysis[1]  released this week by the leftist — and often wrong — think-tank Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy (ICFP) misses the mark so badly the leftist media decided they had to run with it. ICFP’s analysis bizarrely claims Idaho’s ESA program would cost $360 million, or eight times what the bill sponsors claim. They get there by mis-reading numbers from other states and mis-extrapolating what those numbers mean.

Here's how they are so wrong. When Arizona passed its universal school choice bill last year, the first-year applications to the new ESA program totaled 9,710 applicants.[2]  But instead of using that number for a “take-up rate” (proportion of eligible students who become new enrollees into the ESA program) for estimating the costs of Idaho’s proposed ESAs, the ICFP apparently uses the total enrollment in Arizona ESAs at 36,078, which includes previous enrollees of the existing, but limited, Arizona ESAs. 

It's worth noting Arizona’s universal school choice program offered larger ESAs at $6,990. This means, when analyzing Idaho’s ESA program, using a lower take-up rate would be the wise course of action. ICFP makes no such attempt nor note of the difference.

The ICFP doesn’t show what or how they extrapolated the numbers, but their results show a massive over-estimation of ESA enrollees from the new Arizona ESA program. Attempts to contact the ICFP author went unreturned.

Data from many other school choice programs demonstrate how ICFP grossly misses the mark on calculating the amount of estimated new enrollees. The table below from Martin Leuken, Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis at EdChoice[3] shows how the vast majority of school choice programs across the U.S. experience take up rates of less than 1% in the first year, and only five had take-up rates exceeding 4% after three years. The largest two programs targeted specific troubled school districts in Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin, and they topped out at less than 10.9% and 15.6%. All but one of the other programs in the study had less than 6% take-up rates after three years. 

This calls into question the serious flaws in the ICFP analysis. Projecting an overall take-up rate for Idaho of nearly 20% in the second year is simply not credible. Particularly, the ICFP projecting a 95% take-up rate from 11,727 homeschool students is bizarre indeed. Given the reluctance of many homeschool families to participate in any government-sponsored education program, it is simply inconceivable to expect 11,141 of them to jump into ESAs.

Similarly, the ICFP over-projects both existing private school students and public school students’ take-up rates at 75% and 12%. There is no supporting evidence to expect such rates. 

The bill sponsors estimate 6,600 ESA enrollments in Idaho. This is a generous estimation at roughly 2% of all eligible students, including current public, private, and homeschool students. The sponsors used 2% to make sure the $45 million appropriation would be sufficient to meet the enrollments in ESAs. The actual enrollment, and therefore cost, will likely be less than anticipated by the sponsors.

The poor analysis by ICFP is not an outlier. The ICFP has a terrible record of tilting its analyses in favor of leftist policies and against family and freedom-friendly policies. Recall that in 2018, ICFP accepted the Milliman estimates of Medicaid Expansion costing the state $412 million total (state and federal) for FY21. In FY21, it was actually $670 million. Now, for 2024 budgeting, the total cost of expansion (all from tax dollars) is projected to be $1.036 billion annually.[4] How did that work out for you, Idaho?  

Meanwhile, the Idaho Freedom Foundation correctly predicted the higher and escalating cost of Medicaid Expansion. What did the media say? *Crickets*

So, now that excellent school choice legislation comes before the Senate for consideration, who does the media trust? The ones who got it so wrong just a few years ago or those who got it right? Of course, history doesn’t matter to the media except when the media is trying to campaign against school choice and against Idaho families. It should not surprise Idahoans who pay attention how the media takes sides and passes along sketchy analyses to further their own leftist agenda. 


[1] Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy. “Future Costs of Idaho SB1038’s Universal Education Savings Accounts Projected to Rise Sharply,” February 20, 2023

[2] Grand Canyon Institute. “What the Data Say About Arizona’s Universal Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) Expansion,” September 17, 2022

[3] Table is copied from “Participation in Private Education Choice Programs,” Fiscal Research and Education Center, EdChoice, https://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/Participation-in-Private-Education-Choice-Programs.pdf

[4] Idaho Legislative Services Office. “Idaho 2023 Legislative Budget Book – Fiscal Year 2024,” December, 2022

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