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New predictions on Idaho ESA program require major scrutiny

It produced some eye-opening numbers that got the attention of media including the Idaho Statesman and KTVB. But a new blog from the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy on Idaho Senate Bill 1038 should be considered with major caution, even as it appears to predict education choice would be wildly popular.

The center claims the cost of the Education Savings Account program in Idaho would be $363.8 million in 2025 and beyond.

The author claims 12% of public school students – or 37,850 – would participate, at a cost of $225.2 million. The center further predicts that 75% and 95% of private school and homeschooling participants, respectively, would sign up for a total cost of $133.5 million.

In examining these claims, let’s first separate the public school students from the private and homeschooling students.

As of 2020-21, the state of Idaho State Department of Education financial summaries show an allocation of roughly $7,500 per student, per year. These are just state funds – local and federal dollars are counted separately.

Under the ESA proposal introduced in Senate Bill 1038, 80% of that state per student fund would stay with the student and their family for education, while the remaining 20% would stay with the public school where the child lives.

While there is little evidence to suggest 12% of public school students would opt-in to the program, the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy piece suggests the $225.2 million is new spending. It is not. The state will be spending that cash whether it passes an ESA program or not. That money is already in the “system.” (It’s worth noting the fiscal note of 1038 calls for $45 million in spending for 6,600 students, but those numbers could change depending on the number of public school students who participate.)

If ICFP’s claims are true and 12% of current public school students would take advantage, overcrowding in state public schools would dramatically decline and the amount of money the state spends, per student, on K-12 would actually increase, as 20% would stay with the public school.

On the private school and homeschooling side, again there is little evidence to show that 75-95% of current private and homeschooling students would sign up for the program.

First of all, universal programs like the one proposed in SB 1038 are fairly new. There is no way to accurately determine the number of private and homeschooling students who will take advantage.

Second, the state of Idaho does not regulate private or homeschooling, so it is difficult to know the number of students participating. The Idaho State Department of Education estimates private schooling accounts for about 11,700 students in Idaho. The ICFP claims there are more than 15,000. Assuming the Idaho State Department of Education data is correct, ICFP’s projected cost claim (assuming 75% enrollment) is off by millions of dollars – not just a rounding error.

Third, it’s worth considering the language in the bill. If the ICFP projections of 22,400 homeschooling and private school students participating is correct, the school districts where those students live would automatically see an increase in state funding. Why? Because 20% of the state allocation of $7,500 stays with the local school district – granting districts another $33 million.

But a review across previous state programs finds no evidence of enrollment reaching or even approaching those percentages. Current data from the program in Arizona shows the number of students participating at 47,200 – half from public schools, half from private schools. Arizona’s student population is roughly four times larger than Idaho, yet ICFP claims Idaho’s enrollment in an ESA would reach 60,304 – far exceeding Arizona’s.

It's also worth noting that 58% of students in Arizona using choice programs are special needs – an important consideration in predicting how many students may participate in the future.

Before Arizona’s expansion, there were six states that offered Education Savings Accounts. The total student population using those accounts was 22,000.

The fiscal note for the Arizona legislation assumed 20% participation of homeschoolers in three years. The research in MSPC’s Education Choice Improves Outcomes concluded:

"There is no official census of homeschool students. According to U.S. Census Bureau projections, Idaho’s estimated 2022 population is 1,939,033. The estimated school age population (age 5-17) is 362,600. Combined public and private school enrollment is approximately 328,724. The gap between the total school age population and those enrolled in public or private schools is 33,876. According to the 2020 Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, 10.3% of Idaho families homeschool, but each family may have multiple students. The true number of homeschooling students may be greater or less than these estimates."

With the widespread skepticism in the Idaho homeschooling community regarding any government program, it is difficult – if not impossible – to understand the data behind a projection of 95% participation.

The ICFP – and the media – have a responsibility to explain the numbers in greater detail. We requested the data from ICFP but have yet to receive any response. The data is not available on their website.

Bottom line - if the total number of students participating in the program truly reaches 60,304, it would make Idaho’s ESA the most popular and successful of any state in the nation. And it would also show intense demand by parents looking to improve educational outcomes for all children.

It would be something to celebrate, not to fear.

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