Opinion: Public funds for private schooling: Stop the steal

This week the Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance and Appropriation Committee approved a 16.4% increase in K-12 public education funding for fiscal year 2024. This raises Idaho’s minimum starting teacher salary to $47,477, elevating the state to 10th in national rankings (based on 2020-21 National Education Association data). Most Idahoans and the majority of elected officials are celebrating what should be measurable improvements in public school facilities, classroom instruction and pupil performance starting next year.

Nine out of 10 of our school-age children attend Idaho’s public schools as opposed to attending private or parochial school or being home-schooled. In most locations, parents may choose to have their children attend traditional public schools, magnet schools, charter schools or alternative schools, all funded with public tax dollars and held to account by our state government and local school boards.

One of my favorite examples of public school choice is the Island Park Charter School, which opened in 2020 and currently serves K-4 students in a facility near Mack’s Inn. Island Park’s previous public school closed 60-plus years ago, forcing even 5-year-olds to ride the bus 17-50 miles one way to Ashton schools. Authorized by Fremont School District No. 215 and governed by a local board, the new charter school emphasizes science, social studies and literature, and offers special education services in 13 disability categories identified by the state.

Of course, Island Park parents may still choose to home-school their children or send them to Ashton public schools. The closest private school is located in Rexburg, which would add 23 miles each way for an Island Park student to attend. Most Idaho small towns lack private schools, which is one reason our state has creatively diversified its types of public schools — offering true choice even with limited funding.

I was pleased to see so many eastern Idaho legislators affirm their commitment to free public education on the March 11 Post Register opinion page. Unfortunately, there remains a vocal minority of Idahoans, supported by out-of-state interests, clamoring for public tax dollars to benefit tuition-based private schools and their clients. Their latest attempt to secure public funding is Senate Bill 1161 which would undermine the Empowering Parent program, originally designed to help low-income families obtain educational devices and services, such as computers, internet access and tutoring. The current rules limit these educational benefits to $1,000 per child, with a maximum of $3,000 per qualifying family.

SB 1161 would designate $12 million of $30 million in available EP program funds (40%) to offer $6,000 tuition grants for up to 2,000 private school students per year over a five-year pilot period. Given that private schools are concentrated in Idaho’s most urban counties, this bill would disadvantage rural communities in particular and reduce funds otherwise available to low-income families across the state.

Idaho’s Constitution states that the Legislature is to “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” Our legislators should kill this “voucher-like” bill and ensure that our public tax dollars solely support a continually improving public school system.

Janice Brown is a nonprofit consultant and the state committeewoman for the Bonneville County Democratic Central Committee.