Make no mistake: Every parent in Idaho already has the right to choose where their children attain an education. “School choice” really represents the funneling of public tax dollars to private, religious and home schools in the form of tuition vouchers, educational savings accounts or tax credits.
Educational choices are so wide open in Idaho that parents even have the right to choose the “no education” option. Although most home-school parents probably do their best, there is nothing preventing undiscerning Idaho parents from withdrawing their children from school — or not registering them in the first place — by claiming that they will be home-schooled.
Title 33, Chapter 2 of Idaho Code speaks to compulsory education for students ages 7 through 15. There is no way to monitor and enforce this for home-schoolers because we have no laws regulating them in Idaho. The Idaho State Department of Education website states: “Since Idaho does not regulate or monitor home school education, it is up to the parent/guardian to select the curriculum they wish to use. There is no registration or sign up procedure required and the state of Idaho does not have a set curriculum to be followed for home school education.” Clearly, public tax dollars should not flow toward completely unregulated, unmonitored home schools.
“But,” say advocates of school choice, “tax dollars should follow the student wherever they want to be educated.”
Not so fast. You can’t discount Article IX of the Idaho Constitution, which states, in part: “... it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”
The Idaho Constitution says nothing about private schools. True, the Idaho Constitution does not prohibit funneling dollars to private nonreligious “corporate schools.” However, before public school money is skimmed away for private school tuition, the Legislature must assure that public schools are uniformly and thoroughly funded, which they currently are not.
Recently, Pennsylvania’s school funding system was found unconstitutional for disparities caused by relying heavily on local property taxes. Sound familiar?
In many Idaho districts, levies are necessary to provide the basics. Money diverted from the state’s general fund for private schools places more burden on property taxes, such as what is happening in Wisconsin.
States that funded private schools, even with income limits for recipients, have seen their appropriations increase dramatically over time, making the general fund pie slices continuously smaller for other recipients, such as public schools, law enforcement and health and human services.
Once dollars leave the public domain and enter the private, there is little if any oversight on how that money is spent. Clearly, public tax dollars should not flow toward unregulated private schools, especially when they can deny access to any category of student they wish, teach whatever they want (indoctrination?) and spend our tax dollars without oversight.
Say choice advocates: “But Idaho public school students perform poorly on state tests.”
In Idaho, it is the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium system that measures student performance against Common Core standards. These are, at best, questionable measures of student achievement. They are lengthy, clunky, burdensome, online tests. Many states have dropped the SBAC. Currently only 11 states appear to be using it. That’s down from 31 states from a few years ago.
A better comparison is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is a common measure for student achievement across the country. In 2022, the percentage of Idaho eighth graders scoring “at or above proficiency” on NAEP reading and math tests was above the national average. Private and home schools do not have to follow state standards or take state tests. There is also no solid evidence that voucher programs improve student test scores or outcomes.
The most disturbing development regarding private school funding is that separation of church and state continues to blur under the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are probably rolling in their graves. They said it was a violation of religious liberty to force citizens to support, through taxation, a faith they didn’t follow.
Our Idaho founders felt the same way.
Section 5, Article IX of the Idaho Constitution emphatically states that public governments shall never provide funds “... to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution controlled by any church, sectarian or religious domination whatsoever.”
In the recent Espinoza and Carson cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that if states fund private schools, the same must be afforded religious schools. If these measures ever pass in Idaho, we will be forced to support religious schools with our tax dollars — any religious schools of any faith.
How many conservative Christian Idahoans would like their tax dollars going to a non-Christian, satanic temple or Wicca school? Do you really want to flip open the lid of Pandora’s box and spill this can of worms? Excuse the cliches, but once unleashed, this money-hungry genie will not go back into the bottle.
Gee, of Lewiston, is a retired special education teacher.