In recent years, Idaho has experienced a growing inflow of funds from special interest groups who supporting the introduction of school voucher programs in Idaho. These “school choice advocates” and their pro-voucher allies in the Idaho Legislature were instrumental in introducing several bills during the 2023 legislative session to siphon funds away from public schools to fund private and religious schools.
Thankfully, their efforts were unsuccessful. But pro-voucher forces are already working on new and creative ways to strip our public schools of their already scarce resources to help subsidize private school tuition for more wealthy Idahoans — a bell that can never be unrung. Idaho lawmakers must continue to support Idaho’s public schools and resist the call from out-of-state moneymen eager to privatize public education.
Voucher proponents argue that school vouchers allow parents to choose the best educational options for their children. However, a closer look reveals an intricate narrative where promoters of school vouchers, backed by substantial out-of-state financial resources, are undermining public education in their pursuit of expanding school choice.
School voucher activists have been wielding their financial clout to influence lawmakers and promote the idea that educational success is best achieved through privatization. The American Federation for Children, one of Idaho’s top spending lobbyists in the 2023 legislative session, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence power and convince lawmakers to strip resources from an already underfunded public education system to fund a private school system with no mechanisms for accountability. These organizations were successful in helping pass Arizona’s voucher program in 2022.
The Arizona model, which Idaho lawmakers attempted to replicate last session, was set to cost taxpayers $65 million, but that figure has ballooned to nearly $1 billion. Voucher advocates would lead you to believe this only demonstrates these programs’ popularity. Yet, most students utilizing vouchers to attend private schools have never stepped foot in a public school. That means Arizona’s taxpayers subsidize tuition for families already attending private schools.
The flood of money into Idaho to advocate for school vouchers is not just about providing alternatives but rather a strategic move to weaken public schools. Opponents of public education have been quick to employ a discrediting narrative, casting doubt on the effectiveness and integrity of public schools. Part of that narrative is a sinister attempt to destroy the public’s confidence in public schools by manufacturing stories about school libraries and indoctrination.
In 2021, then Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin chaired an “indoctrination taskforce” aimed at ridding schools of Marxist ideology and Critical Race Theory. While the committee could not produce any evidence of Marxism or the teachings of an obscure legal theory, they did recommend that state legislators expand school choice, like vouchers for private school tuition and homeschoolers in Idaho. Since then, voucher proponents have manufactured a slew of false accusations to diminish public education and disparage Idaho educators.
Public schools in Idaho face challenges, but the answer is not diverting resources and discrediting the institutions that serve as the bedrock of our communities. Instead of siphoning resources away from public education, Idaho needs to address the root causes of educational disparities, invest in public education improvements, and ensure an equitable education for all Idaho students. Idaho public schools are innovative and will continue to meet the needs of all students.
During the 2024 legislative session, there will be a remarkable effort and unprecedented spending to put some kind of voucher program into law. Once Idaho decides to fund private school tuition, there will be no turning back. Idaho lawmakers should continue to make investments in our constitutionally mandated public system of education and focus on the public school facility needs in rural communities.
Matt Compton is the associate executive director of the Idaho Education Association.