Updated: Jul 21
It's hard to make sense of the strategy in advancing additional education choice options in the Idaho legislature - if there even is one.
Senate Bill 1038 - which would have provided universal Education Savings Accounts - was defeated in the Senate on Monday. During that lengthy discussion, many legislators who ultimately voted no said they were in favor of education choice, but thought the bill went too far, too fast. They wanted to see other proposals as well.
"It's a journey," Senate Education Chairman Dave Lent said during the floor debate.
The journey hit roadblocks in the House on Thursday. We were expecting three new bills to be introduced in the House education committee.
But two of the proposals were pulled from the agenda before the meeting - one that would have created a 529 ESA proposal, another that would have expanded the popular Empowering Parents program. We don't know what is going to happen with those proposals going forward. Perhaps we'll learn in the coming days.
The third - a very modest, thoughtful proposal by Rep. Lance Clow to create Education Savings Accounts - couldn't even advance from a routing slip to become an actual bill and get a hearing and public comment.
"All I am asking for is to give us a chance to have a hearing," Rep. Clow said in his comments.
That didn't happen.
Some lawmakers suggested they had already heard feedback via emails and phone calls. Others said they were concerned if they voted to introduce the bill, it would be assigned to another committee.
The 17 members of the committee seemed to have 17 different opinions.
In the discussion, Rep. Jack Nelsen said he wasn't aware of data that showed improvements. We have much of that data posted here.
Some legislators (presumably based on numbers released by the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy) say the program is unaffordable. As we've pointed out here, the study ICFP released last week is filled with major errors and deserves scrutiny. We've asked the ICFP for more information on where they got their data, but they haven't responded. They have a duty to explain how they achieved their numbers - especially if legislators are going to depend on it to make their decision.
It's important to note that, under several ideas introduced so far, any prediction of the amount of public school students who would participate will, in reality, cost the state little to nothing. Why? The state will be spending that cash whether it passes an ESA program or not. That money is already in the “system.”
Any students in private or homeschool who may take advantage of the program would cost the state funds, but under the several proposals put forward thus far, 20% of their amount goes back to a local public school - whether they attend that school or not. Thus, the amount of spending per student, per year in Idaho public schools would actually increase under these scenarios.
Legislators also questioned the accountability of Rep. Clow's proposal, but as he rightly pointed out "if a public school scores are low, we don't take any money away from them."
Several legislators made the mistake of calling ESA's "vouchers." As we have previously pointed out, there is a big difference between the two.
Where things go from here is unclear. Education choice improves outcomes, and legislators would be wise to continue to work to advance a bill that can get broad support. But it is difficult as of right now to see that happening with so many lawmakers pulling in so many different directions.
Additional education choice options have stymied lawmakers in Idaho for several years now. Legislative leaders may want to start thinking about creating a joint legislative panel or work group that can hash out a concrete proposal in the interim, and have it ready to be introduced in the 2024 legislative session.
In the meantime, families will continue to wait.