Policy Topics

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.

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.

Andrew Villeneuve

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