The House Education Committee entertained presentations on three draft bills this morning, showing that efforts to give Idaho students at least some form of school choice are still alive, despite a significant setback yesterday on the Senate floor where 23 Senators voted to kill Senate Bill 1038, a universal education savings account bill.
Twelve conservative Senators voted to send that bill to the House, but 16 Republicans joined the Democrats to kill the bill. The bill would have created an education savings account (ESA) program that would have been open to all K-12 students and given each participating student about $6,000 annually to customize his or her education. It was modeled after Arizona’s highly successful ESA program, which has been empowering students for more than a decade.
One of the three draft bills presented by Sen. Lori Den Hartog and Rep. Wendy Horman to the House Education Committee this morning is worthy of a closer review. Their bill would expand the existing Empowering Parents micro-grant program to add a “tuition grant” component that would serve no more than 2,000 students. Participating students would receive $6,000 per year that could be used to hire a certified teacher or offset the costs of private school tuition. Parents would be required to apply between Jan. 1 and April 1 of each year, and low-income families would receive priority, although other families could still apply. The program would last for only five years, at which point it would undergo a required review.
Another bill presented by Rep. Lance Clow would impose many significant restrictions on students. The draft bill would prioritize students whose families make less than $70,000 per year and contains several restrictions on when students can apply and how funds can be used. Participating students would also be required to take a national standardized test, and results would be reported to the state. According to the presentation, the program would not start serving students until Fiscal Year 2025. Students entering kindergarten would be eligible to apply immediately, but students in any other grade would be required to attend public schools for at least 90 days to be eligible to apply. Families would be able to use the accounts to offset the cost of private school tuition but only at accredited private schools. Students would have to demonstrate that they are performing at grade level or have made “one full year of academic growth.” Currently, that is not even a requirement of public schools. If it were, they would barely receive funding.
Rep. Jaron Crane presented a draft bill that seems to propose a limited 529 savings account program. The bill would give each student only $1,500 per year to use at private schools in Idaho. Funds would need to sit in accounts for several days before they could be used, and multiple elected officials, including the Treasurer and State Controller, would need to sign off before the money could be used at the eligible school of the family’s choosing. The amount of $1,500 is clearly not enough for families to afford to send their child to a private school.
After the presentations, Chairman Julie Yamamoto indicated that the draft bills would return to the committee on Thursday for formal introductory hearings. If printed, the bills will be added to the committee’s agenda for further discussion and debate.
Today’s presentations indicate that interest in passing some form of school choice is still alive, but it seems unlikely that Idaho’s Legislature will empower every Idaho student with full education freedom this session. That is bad news for Idaho families. Every kid deserves the opportunity to access the educational services that work best for them. Here’s to hoping lawmakers support the next best school choice proposal put before them.
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