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Losing Streak – Idaho Education Freedom

Losing Streak – Idaho Education Freedom

Ronald M. Nate, Ph.D.
December 7, 2023
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December 7, 2023

Remember last year when education choice was the front-burner issue in the Idaho legislature?  Remember when the education establishment was petrified about Idaho possibly creating a true school choice paradigm to help students and families find the best education without having to pay even more for tuition on top of their taxes?  Remember when the education establishment said we didn’t need more education choice because “Idaho ranks #3 in the country for education freedom according to the Heritage Foundation?”  All that was so “last year.”  Take a look now as we head into 2024.

The Heritage Foundation updated their education freedom rankings and the results are not very good for Idaho.  If our state was a college football team, we would be in serious jeopardy of not making a bowl game this year and the coach’s job would be on the line. Idaho is on a losing streak when it comes to education freedom and success.  Here are the results for Idaho’s public education compared to other states:

Overall Education Freedom:Idaho #11Down 8 spots
Education Choice:Idaho #29Down 9 spots
Transparency:Idaho #8Down 4 spots
Teacher Freedom:Idaho #23Down 2 spots
Return on Investment:Idaho #1Same spot

The first and most glaring change from last year is the overall ranking of education freedom in Idaho moving down eight spots from #3 in 2022 to #11 in 2023.  The education choice ranking shows a similar decline, down 9 spots in one year.  You might ask what laws and policies removed education freedom and choice opportunities for Idaho kids? The answer is none.  Idaho loses ranking because other states have been diligent in expanding education freedom while Idaho’s legislature opposed every good measure to help Idaho students and families.  In 2023, the squishy republicans in the Idaho legislature rejected senate bill S1038 which would have moved Idaho close to the successful education choice models of Arizona and West Virginia. They also rejected a more modest education choice bill offered up by Senator Den Hartog, in senate bill S1161. 

We are careful to note how Idaho is not even in the top half of states in terms of education choice.  Most states do better by providing at least some alternative to the public system without costing families even more in education spending. Idaho seems to think that our model of “choice” where students can choose to attend another public school or charter school (while providing their own transportation for it) is a robust alternative opportunity.  Give me a break—it’s all part of the same public-school establishment.  Idaho needs true choice, including the opportunity for families to find private education options without having to double-pay for them (taxes and tuition).

Idaho also loses spots on transparency because, after house bill H377 in 2021, Idaho has done nothing to increase parents’ access to classrooms and to know in what clubs their students might be participating.  Idaho couldn’t even pass a sex-education opt-in (rather than opt-out) bill so that parents would be more involved in knowing what their kids are learning. The senate also rejected a measure (S1102) to ensure parental rights by requiring schools to inform parents of changes in their children’s mental, emotional, or physical health, and to protect students from being subjected to unbeknownst surveys regarding their sexuality, sex, religion, and/or personal political beliefs.

Teacher freedom is another low point for Idaho.  Because our education establishment refuses to abandon Common Core and because Idaho doesn’t provide for full teacher licensing reciprocity with other states, Idaho slipped two more spots down to number 23 for teachers having the ability to work and to choose the best curriculum for their students.

Finally, Idaho’s number 1 ranking on “return on investment” is more likely a reflection of the low cost-of-living nature in Idaho coupled with students who perform somewhat well despite the public-school constraints.  Student performance on reading and math and science are usually middle to top third in scoring (ok, but not great), and the cost of education is lower (because of lower prices, land, and building costs).  This makes for a performance-to-cost ratio that is high, though there is a lot of room for improvement in public education (when compared with private school and home school student performance outcomes). 

It’s worth noting how states have been leapfrogging each other by throwing more and more money into K-12 education, including Idaho which has greatly increased its education spending. Our K-12 budget is up 36%, for its ongoing spending (and that’s not including big one-time spending increases) for FY2020 through FY2024.

In sum, Idaho has work to do for increasing education freedom, increasing the ability for parents to choose better options, and not being required to pay double for them, and to increase teacher freedom and promote competition (higher pay and benefits) for good teachers. We can and must unleash a competitive school model that translates into exciting innovation and improved student performance.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation is, once again, leading the effort to expand education freedom by proposing real school choice this coming session.  An education tax credit bill, if passed, will provide families with $7,500 of refundable tax credit money per student to pursue non-public school options.  When parents are frustrated with mediocre outcomes and with the increasingly woke and biased nature of public education, they deserve the freedom to find better without paying twice. Students shouldn’t be trapped in mediocrity just because establishment politicians and agencies insist on perpetuating our broken and weak public school model.    

Ronald M. Nate, senior policy fellow at the Idaho Freedom Foundation, is an economics professor at BYU-Idaho, holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Connecticut, and is a former state representative for Idaho Legislative District 34.
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