A right wing effort to authorize the diversion of public tax dollars into privately run schools has collapsed in the Republican-dominated Idaho State Legislature, in a significant victory for public education and progressive organizations working to protect and strengthen the commons of the Gem State.
Senate Bill 1161, the primary vehicle for the effort, was withdrawn from a key committee meeting agenda this morning “because there were not enough votes to pass it, and there is no alternative path for the bill to advance,” Luke Mayville of Reclaim Idaho explained in an email sent to supporters today.
SB 1161 sought to create a school voucher “pilot program” and seed it with $30 million in public funds in Fiscal Year 2024. Mayville told supporters the bill “would’ve opened the door in Idaho to a universal school voucher program — a program that would’ve drained millions from our public schools.”
“During the past year, powerful special interest groups have descended on state legislatures across the country and rammed through universal voucher programs in Arizona, Iowa, Utah, and elsewhere. In each and every one of these states, vouchers were imposed in the face of overwhelming opposition from the public.”
“But here in Idaho, we held the line,” Mayville continued.
“As hard as they tried, the special interest groups could not drown out the voices of thousands of citizens in every region of the state. For now, at least, Idaho will keep public dollars invested in public schools.”
“We have been visiting with individual committee members the past few days, searching for a way to advance the bill,” said Representative Wendy Horman, R‑Idaho Falls, in remarks reported by Idaho Education News. “We heard back from the final committee members around 5 PM yesterday that was not a path they could support, so we requested the bill be pulled from the agenda.”
Horman is the House lead on the legislation; Senators Lori Den Hartog and Chuck Winder are listed as its contacts in the Senate. The bill barely passed the Senate last week, on a vote of 19–15. Speaker Mike Moyle contemplated trying to route it around the Education Committee, but ultimately the bill ended up there and has now been shelved, with insufficient votes to move it forward.
Republicans utterly dominate the Legislature in Idaho. The seventy-member House has just eleven Democrats, while the thirty-five member Senate has a mere seven Democrats. Like Washington, lawmakers in Idaho are elected from legislative districts rather than House or Senate districts.
Democrats lack the ability to stop legislation in Idaho on their own, but by dividing the Republican caucus, they can thwart bad bills. That’s what happened here.
In a related development, the House also opted against putting a nonbinding plebiscite on the November 2024 ballot that would have asked voters to weigh in school privatization. Ryan Suppe of the Idaho Statesman reports:
Idaho Republicans this legislative session have pitched a handful of bills to create education savings accounts. That’s a mechanism for families to collect publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schooling. None of the proposals have cleared the House and Senate.
Representative Lori McCann, R‑Lewiston, proposed a question on the November 2024 ballot asking voters to weigh in on the debate. The advisory question would have no legal weight but would serve as a tool for lawmakers to gauge voter interest.
McCann is the vice chair of the House Education Committee, which this session has blocked school voucher proposals from advancing to the full House. The proposed question would have asked whether the state should direct “public tax dollars to private K‑12 schools, including private religious schools, and for-profit schools.”
“This is to say to the people, ‘Are you comfortable with this? Do you want this or do you not want this?’” McCann told the House on Tuesday.
Other Republicans objected to McCann’s proposal and it was dropped.
In conjunction with the respected firm SurveyUSA, the Idaho Statesman last November asked voters about their thoughts on school vouchers, finding that more than three out of five voters did not support them.
The October Statesman poll asked 550 Idahoans, whose political affiliations nearly matched the statewide ratio of partisan voter registration, “Should taxpayer money be used to help residents pay for private school educations? Or not?”
According to the results, 63% of all adults surveyed said taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to help residents pay for private school, while 23% of respondents said it should be used. The remaining 14% of respondents said they weren’t sure.
With that data available, McCann and other Republicans hardly need to waste money to ascertain voters’ views on school vouchers. The data is clear: voters are opposed. But the idea isn’t going to go away, because Idaho Republican legislators feel like they’re obliged to listen to the right wing think tanks and other groups that desperately want to create a voucher program in the Gem State.
Idaho’s schools are already badly underfunded — a sorry state of affairs that Reclaim Idaho has been trying to get Republicans to take action on — but that doesn’t matter to right wing forces. The Idaho Legislature is due to adjourn shortly, but privatization boosters will be back. It’s very important that progressives continue organizing to defeat their next attempt when it comes.