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Education savings account bill on track to the Senate

The Idaho State Flag hanging inside the Statehouse Rotunda.
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio

After more than four hours of public testimony across two days, a state senate committee advanced a bill that would redirect taxpayer money from public schools to education savings accounts.

Parents could use that money to pay for private school tuition, homeschooling materials, and tutors, among other expenses.

The program is anticipated to cost $45 million in its first year – $5 million of which would cover costs for the payment platform and administrative work. The rest would fund about 6,600 students.

“Right now, Idaho is failing on thousands of students by trapping them in persistently underperforming public schools,” said Sen. Tammy Nichols (R-Middleton), one of the bill’s lead sponsors.

The most recent data from the Idaho Department of Education reflect poor scores among students at all grade levels for the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, or ISAT.

Percentage of all students considered advanced or proficient in:

  • English: 54.8%
  • Math: 41.9%
  • Science: 40.8%

That, according to Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking (D-Boise), is because Idaho has ranked at or towards the bottom in per-pupil spending for years.
“I don’t think that’s a leftist, Democrat situation,” said Ward-Engelking. “We haven’t been in charge … for over 30 years.”

Democrats haven’t controlled either legislative chamber since 1960.

Instead of funding this “voucher” program that would begin “siphoning off money” from public schools for private schools, she said lawmakers should continue to give K-12 education more resources.

Sen. Ben Toews (R-Coeur d’Alene) rejected that characterization.

“It’s an opportunity for the market to supply options to students based on their needs,” Toews said.

Democrats, and Senate Education Committee chairman Sen. David Lent (R-Idaho Falls), who voted against the measure, also raised concerns about the lack of accountability built into the bill.

State officials would not track achievement scores for students who use this money to attend private schools or who are homeschooled. Supporters say parents would be able to scrutinize whether their children are getting an acceptable education.

“I cannot in good faith send money out with no accountability,” said Lent. “That would cause me not to be a good steward of the precious tax dollars that those people in my district are paying.”

Instead, he said, lawmakers may want to consider taking a slower approach to introducing education savings accounts.

The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio

I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!

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