As Americans, we collectively believe that where you start in life should not determine where you end up. That’s why one of the cornerstones of our American democratic way of life is the belief that every child, regardless of his or her race, socio-economic status, religion or ability, has the right to a tuition-free education.
More than 60 years ago in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld that principle in their landmark Brown vs the Board of Education decision, which declared that in America, all children, regardless of their race, should have equal access to a quality education. Every state constitution declares that state’s commitment to provide a system of free public schools. At least 37 state constitutions contain an amendment named for former U.S. Speaker of the House James Blaine, who promoted an amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting the use of state funds at “sectarian” schools. These so-called “Blaine Amendments” place restrictions on the state government’s ability to aid private and religious schools. Idaho’s state constitution contains a similar provision.
Given our nation’s historical commitment to the promise of a free and equitable public education, one might ask why it is that we find ourselves engaging in more and more “school choice” discussions and battles. During the just-concluded 2016 legislative session, the IEA lobby team dealt with several problematic concepts and pieces of legislation.
- Calls for a change to Idaho’s state constitution to allow for public money to be used for private and parochial schools.
- Efforts to further weaken Idaho’s already less-than-stringent charter school laws.
- Legislation allowing individual schools to opt out of state laws, state board rules, and local school board policies, all in the name of “innovation.”
While we were able to stave off some of these ideas, others easily made their way through the legislative process and are now law. While touted as Idaho ideas, many school choice ideas can be traced back to the undue influence of one of the biggest opponents of our nation’s public education system: The American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC. This ultra-conservative, right-wing, privately-funded group is comprised of state legislators and policymakers from across the nation whose ultimate goal is to privatize public education. ALEC uses money from their wealthy donors to develop “model legislation” and encourage their lawmaker-members to introduce that legislation in their own states.
Several pieces of ALEC-inspired legislation have been introduced in Idaho in previous sessions, and this year was no exception. HB 570, Rep. Wendy Horman’s “Innovation Schools Act” is modeled on legislation introduced in Indiana and Colorado, where both states shaped their legislation on a piece of ALEC model legislation. The ideas embodied in Rep. Ronald Nate’s resolution asking voters to change Idaho’s constitution to allow the state to send public tax dollars to private and religious schools also came from the ALEC playbook.
Those of us dedicated to preserving our system of free, public education know that such attacks will continue in ensuing years. That’s why we must be forever vigilant to these attacks. However, to win the game, we must have both an offensive and a defensive strategy to counter these privatization efforts. That’s why over the course of the next few months, the IEA lobby team will be developing a number of concepts and proposals for introduction during the coming legislation session that hold all entities—public and private—to transparency. Additionally, we will continue our efforts to assure every child, regardless of where he or she lives or worships, or the financial status of his or her family, has an equal opportunity to a free, public education. We urge you to join us in those efforts.