NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2023

Gem State win: School privatization schemes fail in Idaho’s Republican-run Legislature

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.

Reclaim Idaho banner: Save our schools

A ban­ner from Reclaim Ida­ho call­ing on Gem Staters to con­tact their leg­is­la­tors in oppo­si­tion to vouch­ers (Graph­ic by Reclaim Idaho)

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.

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