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Vouchers, Launch and a deadline

“Should the State of Idaho…divert tax dollars to private K-12 education, including private religious schools and for-profit schools?”

Thank you, Rep. Lori McCann for suggesting that the legislature put that question to Idaho voters (HB339) before requiring us to finance schools that will not be held accountable to the state for any subject matter or hours of instruction.

Ironically, an earlier version of the same question was proposed Feb 1 in the Sen. Brian Lenney of Nampa. "Shall Section 5, Article IX of the Constitution of the State of Idaho prohibiting sectarian appropriations be repealed?" SJR 2 died in committee.

Many Republican legislators don’t care what the public wants. They don’t feel they were elected to be the “voice of the people”, but that voters have endorsed their superior judgment. They believe republics are best based on paternalism rather than democracy.

So when 58 people signed up to speak against, and only six for, the latest voucher bill (SB 1161), members of the Senate Education Committee still passed the bill–and the Senate supported it, 19-15. (Treasure Valley supporters of the bill include Greg Bernt, Lori Den Hartog, C. Scott Grow, Todd Lakey, Brian Lenney, Tammy Nichols, Chris Trakel, and Chuck Winder.),

The bill is a watered down version of earlier ones–parents of only 2,000 children would be paid $6,000 to pull their kids out of public schools. And poor children–those in families earning less than $70,000–would be considered first. (Legislators can’t limit the program to the truly poor, because the voucher won’t cover tuition at most private schools.)

It’s possible that the bill will die in the House–or be vetoed by the Governor. If it does become law, however, expect significant court costs.

The Idaho Constitution forbids giving state money to religious schools. The U.S Supreme Court has ruled that if state funds are available to private schools they must be available to religious ones also.

There are two ways to look at this.The majority of Senators seem to think that the Supreme Court decision overrules the Idaho Constitution. Others, however, think that funding private schools now violates our Constitution because it also means funding religious schools.

The wise move would be to pass SJR 2 prior to passing a voucher bill, but a Constitutional amendment requires a 75% supermajority in the legislature–and the 19-15 vote in the Senate indicates that voucher supporters do not have one.

Meanwhile, Governor Little’s Launch plan and a competing bill are before the Senate this week. The original bill, HB 24, barely passed the House on Feb.7. It sat in the Senate Commerce & Human Resources Committee a month before being sent to the floor–and then was pulled for amendments.

Last week that committee passed a similar bill. One-time grants would be $8,000 per person rather than $8,500; the recipient would pay 20% of their tuition and fees; and payments would be limited to community colleges, career-technical classes, or other workforce training. Both bills would limit grants to those pursuing in-demand careers.

In addition, SB 1167 would retain Opportunity Scholarships for Idaho students with limited financial resources and good high school grades to attend four-year colleges. Awards are $3,500 annually, up to $14,000 for four years.

Usually, when a bill sits a month in committee, it dies in committee. To realize that the Commerce and Human Resources Committee was trying to improve the bill, not kill it, is heartening. It may pass.

To adjourn March 24, as scheduled, the legislature must pass all the appropriations bills this week. It will be a challenge.

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