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Idaho kills bill allowing public money for private education

A House panel on Tuesday rejected legislation that opponents said would have harmed education by transferring more than $1 billion dollars of public money to private and religious schools.

Backers had said the measure would have improved Idaho education through competition.

But it was too much of a change for a majority of members of the House Education Committee, who voted 8-7 to kill the measure that would have allowed qualifying families to get $6,000 per student from the state private school tuition or private tutoring.

Backers had framed the measure as a parental-choice bill to give parents the option to to send kids to private school using money from what the bill dubbed the “Hope and Opportunity Scholarship Program.”

Supporters said parents paid taxes into the system and therefore should be able to participate in a program to get money from the state to send their kids to a private school.

“This is taxpayer funded,” said Republican Rep. Dorothy Moon, one of the bill’s sponsors. “This is their money. Everybody keeps saying the school district’s money. No, it’s our money.”

But opponents said the measure would have degraded public education and violated the Idaho Constitution, which requires a uniform system of public free public education.

“What we would be doing here would be unconstitutional,” said Republican Rep. Gary Marshall, a retired teacher. “We’re clearly crossing that line.”

Some bill backers agreed with that assessment, but also said they disagreed with the Idaho Constitution and supported the measure anyway.

“This is an amendment that we should remove from our constitution,” said Republican Rep. Judy Boyle. “It is a terrible thing, I think. It’s biased. It’s unfair, and we never should have had to put it in in the beginning.”

Republican Rep. Julie Yamamoto, a retired teacher who voted to kill the bill, said that the way to change the Idaho Constitution isn’t by passing an unconstitutional bill, but by passing a measure with two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate and then getting a simple majority of Idaho voters in a general election.

“I told people in my community that I would be a principle-centered representative, and my principles say I don’t go against the state constitution,” she said.

Besides arguing over the bill’s constitutionality, lawmakers also took issue with the proposed cost. Moon and Republican Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, another of the bill’s sponsors, said in the bill’s fiscal note that in the first year it would have cost about $13 million.

But Democratic Rep. Steve Berch said that was a low-ball number and that under the bill’s guidelines, more than 200,000 Idaho students would qualify at a cost to taxpayers of about $1.2 billion.

“This is not a school-choice bill. This is a who-pays-for-someone-else’s-school-choice bill,” Berch said. “This (bill) becomes the gateway for those who hope to create the opportunity of privatizing education.”

Backers referenced a similar program in Arizona for comparison. But that program has a much more restrictive policy on who qualifies. The proposed bill in Idaho was based on national criteria for a school lunch program, which Berch said made 68% of Idaho students eligible to get money to attend a private or religious school.

Some lawmakers representing rural areas opposed the plan because they said it shortchanged rural areas with no private schools. Most of Idaho’s 121 private schools are in more urban areas.

Republican Rep. Ryan Kerby said he couldn’t support the bill because it included religious private schools. He said his primary concern was that such schools would be pressured to water down their curriculum on such things as gender issues and marriage beliefs if they wanted to take part in the program and get taxpayer money that had been provided to parents for tuition payments.

“There’s going to be pressure on the schools to change,” he said, noting he started working in education in the 1970s at a private Christian school. “I think we’re going to lose, potentially, the purity of doctrine in our Catholic and our Christian schools.”

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