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Religious students in Idaho left out of early graduation pilot program

Religious students in Idaho left out of early graduation pilot program

Idaho Freedom Foundation staff
August 18, 2010

A program that could eventually allow all Idaho students to graduate from high school early and receive a state-funded scholarship for doing so has left some students who might wish to attend three private universities in the state on the outside looking in.  One of the men behind the project, Rep. Steve Thayn, R-Emmett, says the exclusion of private universities, two of which are funded by churches, might need to be fixed, but that a remedy won't be found until 2012 legislative session.

The problem, some say, is in the scholarships themselves.  If a student graduates one year earlier than normal, it is believed he will save the state about $5,000 by doing so.  Once the early graduation is complete, the student is awarded one-third of the statewide amount it costs the state to educate a child each year, or about $1,600.  Those scholarships, however, can only be used at publicly-funded colleges and universities in the state, meaning that several institutions of higher education - and their students - are left out in the cold.

Thayn says the issue has already been discussed among education officials in the state.  "It's one of the top complaints we've received," said Thayn.   The move to exclude non-state schools was not meant to slight student who wish to attend the state's two religion-sponsored schools, he said, but rather was a move of political expediency.  "Sometimes, to get legislation passed, you have to anger as few people as possible," Thayn explained.  "I don't see a big problem with it, but I'm sure we'll address it in the future."  He plans to introduce some tweaks to the early graduation program in the 2011 legislative session, but a fix to include religious-based schools in the program isn't one of them.

Many of the scholarship offered by the state apply only to state-funded colleges or universities, but there are key differences between those and the early graduation scholarship program.  Several scholarships offered by the state go to students who meet certain academic criteria, or come from low-income or economically disadvantaged backgrounds, but not all students qualify.  One commonly-known financial award given by the state is the Robert R. Lee scholarship, which is divided into two parts based on the academic achievement of students who graduate from high schools in Idaho.  Under the Lee award, students who score well on standardized tests while earning a 3.5 grade point average or higher qualify for $3,000 per school year that can be used at state colleges or universities under the eye of the Idaho State Board of Education, which mean students who qualify for this scholarship must use it at a state-funded school.

Students who earn a 3.0 grade point average or score higher than a 20 on the ACT can earn $300 per semester, up to four semesters, under the second portion of the Lee scholarship.  The difference in the second portion of the Lee award is that students who wish to attend state-funded schools or private colleges or universities can have their pick.  Brigham Young University-Idaho (BYU-I), an institution operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), the College of Idaho, a private, liberal arts school with no religious affiliation, and Northwest Nazarene University, sponsored by the Church of the Nazarene, are all listed as participants in the Robert R. Lee Part B scholarship program.

The difference with the early graduation program is who can qualify to earn scholarships.  The bill written by Thayn, along with Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, who also helped to construct the pilot project, doesn't require students to maintain a certain grade point average or earn a certain standardized test score, but it does require that end-of-course assessments used by students to test out of classes be passed with an 85 percent score of higher.  That means that if the project is eventually implemented on a statewide basis, all students in Idaho could test out of classes and graduate early and earn scholarship dollars.

Andy Cargal, a spokesman for BYU-I, said that the university would be open to changes that would allow students of the LDS faith in Idaho to use early graduation scholarships at the school.  "If the state were to change its mind and also offer grants to students who wish to attend a private university, such as Brigham Young University-Idaho, we would welcome that," said Cargal, sharing the school's official stance.

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