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Idaho's education choice proposal - analysis and recommendations

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Today, Idaho lawmakers introduced a bill (SB 1038) to fund universal education savings accounts (ESA) that would fundamentally change the landscape for Idaho children. Modeled after Arizona’s ESA program, the bill showcases various best practices for education choice, many of which are detailed in our policy study, Education Choice Improves Outcomes.

The bill would establish individual education savings accounts for all qualified Idaho students in grades K-12, which could be used to fund private school tuition, textbooks and curriculum, educational therapies and tutoring services, online learning programs, AP and standardized tests, computers, and specific services provided by a public school including individual classes and extracurricular programs.

Students who enroll will receive 80% of the per pupil state general fund operating expenditures (currently estimated at $5,950 per student per year).This is a student-focused bill, aiming for universal education choice right out of the gate, which is laudable. Other notable aspects include:

· A wide range of “allowable” expenses, which will permit parents to select the means and methods of education that best suit the individual student;

· Financial and competitive benefits to public schools, such as allowing them to charge ESA students for extracurricular programs and classes;

· Carrying over ESA balances into postsecondary institutions;

· Annual random compliance audits of ESAs to deter and restrict potential abuse, including an appeal process for parents who disagree with an audit finding;

· The establishment of a “Parent Oversight Committee” consisting of six qualified parents of ESA students, to review ESA policies and procedures and to make recommendations for improvements based on the experience of ESA participants.

The bill also explicitly protects the independence of private schools that accept ESA payments and “does not permit any government agency to exercise control or supervision over any nonpublic school or homeschooling.” Under the bill’s protections for private schools, no government agency can require a private school to “alter its creed, practices, admissions policy, or curriculum” to accept ESA students. This is an important provision for protecting the independence, religious practices, and curriculum preferences of parents.

From a “best practices” policy perspective focusing on students and their individual needs, we would recommend a few changes, such as a targeted ESA program for special needs students in addition to the universal program. Eligible students would need an IEP, but after establishing eligibility, they could apply for the program and receive additional funds for special therapies or tutoring, while staying in the public school they might prefer.

In addition to allowing ESA balances to carry over to postsecondary institutions, legislators should allow students to use the fund at a qualified Idaho trade school. Currently, the state’s post-secondary education goals do not match the priorities of Idaho families, particularly rural families. Only 37 percent of high school seniors pursue postsecondary education, while the state’s goal is 60 percent. Rural students in particular want more access and support for trade schools. Allowing ESA balances to be used for trade school enrollment would get students the training they want, instead of forcing them into a college education they don’t, and create incentives to keep more Idaho students in state and on track to become permanent, productive Idahoans.

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