New interest groups and pro-education savings account legislators in Idaho are changing their strategy. They have refined their messaging and pushed for incremental measures rather than sweeping changes in education funding. Public school advocates worry that this gradual approach could lead to an eventual attack on public education funding. (Getty Images illustration)
Advocates pushing for alternatives to traditional public schools in Idaho have added plenty of notches to their belt in recent years — they have passed bills expanding charter schools, adding protection for homeschoolers and providing funding for new grants for families to pay for pandemic-related education expenses.
But there’s one bill they desperately want that they haven’t been able to pull off: a bill that would allow public dollars to be spent on private tuition and other alternatives to traditional public schools.
For years, the loudest voices advocating for a bill that would use state funding for private tuition were groups like the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which supports an entirely “free-market” education system (its president, Wayne Hoffman, has said that “the government shouldn’t be in the education business.”) Their allies’ attempts to get a bill passed before this legislative session have rarely advanced beyond committee hearings.
Allies who align with their larger goals have seen how such efforts (like the bill that Sens. Tammy Nichols and Brian Lenney proposed earlier this year) have failed, isolating rural legislators — who, with few private school options, depend on public schools — as well as teachers, who worry that public schools will suffer if taxpayer money is diverted to private schools.
Now, new interest groups and pro-ESA legislators are changing their strategy. They have refined their messaging and pushed for incremental measures rather than sweeping changes in education funding.
A bill passed in the Idaho Senate last week could be the test of this new strategy.
Senate Bill 1161 builds upon a previous grant program for parents to create a pilot education savings account program, which takes money that would have gone to public schools and puts it into a government-authorized savings account, which parents can use to spend on private school tuition or tutoring. Thirteen state senators and 22 representatives have signed on as co-sponsors.
What’s the difference between an ESA and a voucher?
Education savings accounts and vouchers are programs that divert public education dollars toward private school tuition. In voucher systems, the government typically allows parents to use public funding at a private school, with the state giving money directly to the school. With ESAs, parents receive funds into their government-authorized saving accounts, which they can use to spend on approved types of expenses, such as private school tuition, private tutoring, or transportation fees. The ESA program outlined in Senate Bill 1161, for example, would allow parents to use the funds to hire certified teachers at a “micro-school,” in addition to private school tuition.
Public school advocates worry that this gradual approach could lead to an eventual full-blown attack on public education funding. They point to what happened in Arizona, where by 2025, the state’s now universal ESA program is expected to cost about $125 million per year, as an example of what could happen in Idaho. Incrementalism was a winning strategy there, where interest groups linked to conservative billionaires like former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers spent over a decade passing bills with less of a financial impact before they passed a universal ESA program.
“These are the same tactics that have been used all across the country — the tactics are just being imposed now on Idaho,” said Rod Gramer, president of Idaho Business for Education, which is against ESAs and other voucher-like programs.
Resistance to diverting taxpayer dollars from public education
So far, Idaho legislators haven’t shown the political will to pass a universal ESA program the way Arizona did. Beyond teachers unions and public education supporters, hesitancy has come from the state’s powerful business lobby, Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, which has in the past supported legislation offering parents alternative choices, but has so far drawn a line at bills that would divert money from the public school system. The other main skeptics are rural legislators, whose constituents don’t have many private schools in their areas and thus rely on public schools.
Another possible barrier in front of ESA legislation? The governor. While Brad Little has supported some of the incremental school choice programs, he has also pushed for a major expansion of public school funding this year.
Madison Hardy, a spokesperson for the governor, said that Little doesn’t comment on pending legislation but that he “supports the abundance of school choice options currently available to Idaho families, and generally does not support efforts that divert taxpayer dollars away from our legal and moral obligation to fund public school education in Idaho.”
While previous Idaho Legislatures haven’t supported ESA bills, this year could be different. The makeup of the Legislature has dramatically changed, and more special interest groups have descended upon the Statehouse.
The shift began during the pandemic. In 2020, as the coronavirus lockdowns forced public schools to shut their doors, advocacy groups tapped into parents’ frustration to advance longstanding arguments about educational alternatives.
In Idaho, new interest groups included Yes. Every Kid, an organization within Charles Koch’s network of nonprofits and charitable groups that targets statehouses where it can influence school choice. In 2022, they were joined by the American Federation for Children, a national school choice group previously led by DeVos.
These groups’ messaging is considerably toned down from the IFF’s — their leaders don’t lead rallying cries to shut down the “government monopoly” on schools. Some acknowledge that public schools work as an option for some families. They have hesitated to align themselves with those attacking public schools over hot-button issues like critical race theory or censoring school libraries.
“To be quite honest with you, I’ve never been convinced by someone calling me one name or another,” said Chris Cargill, president and CEO of the Mountain States Policy Center, a new free-market think tank that supports ESAs and was founded in 2022. “I’ve been convinced by someone showing me facts and figures and data. That’s the perspective that we take.”
In the post-pandemic legislative sessions, the new interest groups have supported a slew of legislation modeled after the Arizona ESA program. Some, like a bill sponsored by Rep. Priscilla Giddings in 2021, never made it to a committee hearing. Another bill that year, co-sponsored by Rep. Wendy Horman and Sen. Lori Den Hartog, made it past the House but was narrowly killed in the Senate on a 16-18 vote, according to an analysis by Idaho Education News, due in part to a handful of Republicans who felt it overreached, including Republicans Jeff Agenbroad of Nampa, Carl Crabtree of Grangeville and Jim Woodward of Sagle.
While they failed to pass an ESA bill, a different bill by Horman and Den Hartog did pass: an extension Gov. Little’s pandemic-era Strong Families, Strong Students grants, which provided grants of $1,000 per student to help families pay for internet, tutoring or classroom materials during the lockdown. The extension, passed in 2022, used $50 million in federal funds to continue the program.
Later that year, education savings account advocates found a new opening: primary elections. As the Idaho Capital Sun has previously reported, the American Federation for Children and the State Policy Network poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into state primary campaigns, tipping the Legislature further in their favor.
For instance, Agenbroad, Crabtree and Woodward became the targets of Larry Williams, an ESA advocate who funded their primary opponents after they had helped shut down a bill related to charter schools. Their ousting left two open spots on the Senate Education Committee to be filled by Scott Herndon and Lenney, both supporters of ESAs.
Once a guardrail against the more broad ESA legislation, the committee was left in the hands of ESA advocates, leaving Chairman Dave Lent as a moderate.
What’s happened this legislative session
At the start of this year, it seemed that ESA advocates were moving forward with the same strategy of proposing a a broad, Arizona-style ESA program: Sens. Nichols and Lenney brought forward a bill to provide education savings accounts of nearly $6,000 per student. It met a fate similar to its predecessors, passing in the Senate Education Committee but blocked by the full Senate. Opponents of the bill took issue with the program’s steep price tag and its lack of accountability measures.
Soon after, though, Horman and Den Hartog came forward with a bill similar to one they had proposed in 2021.
Like that previous legislation, their new bill, SB 1161, builds upon the Empowering Parents, Empowering Students program by adding an ESA pilot program for up to five years that provides up to $6,000 of public funds for private school tuition to up to 2,000 students a year. It is estimated to cost $12 million.
What’s new is a certain co-sponsor who wasn’t there before: Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, who voted against the more wide-ranging ESA bill proposed by Nichols and Lenney earlier this session.
Winder could not be reached for comment on why he had decided to co-sponsor the bill.
SB 1161 also has support from the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the American Federation for Children (five of the six legislators whose primary campaigns they helped fund signed on as co-sponsors to the bill), and the Mountain States Policy Center. So far, IACI has remained neutral.
The smaller scope of the bill has frustrated some activists who would like to see Idaho ride on the coattails of Arizona and Wisconsin’s successful ESA movement.
“It doesn’t make much sense that we just have to wait,” said Carolyn Harrison, founder of Idaho Parents for Education Choice.
But Cargill said that activists may need to be patient.
“Arizona did not get universal education savings accounts overnight, and Idaho’s not going to get universal education savings accounts overnight either,” Cargill said. “This is a way to get that conversation started.”
Cargill said he feels legislators might have an easier time signing onto a smaller program than what’s been proposed in previous years.
“It’s a pretty minor change,” Cargill said “There are more than 300,000 students in the state. And you’re talking about a pilot program for less than 1% of them, so there should really be no qualms with getting something like this passed.”
During Wednesday’s vote in the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, a Boise Democrat, said she was concerned about the way that Empowering Parents, Empowering Students grants were being used as a backdoor to ESA legislation.
“We were worried about it being halfway forward for private tuition … but we were assured that that was not the case, and yet less than a year — not even a year — from the point that we started, we’re here trying to put private school tuition into this Empowering Parents program,” she said.
American Federation for Children lobbyist Bill Phillips addressed concerns at the hearing that the legislation was part of a larger plan to gradually implement universal school ESAs.
“You’ve heard that we do it small and then we grow it out. States like Iowa, Utah, Arizona … the reason it happened is because that was what they wanted, that was what they voted for,” Phillips said. “This program … is not the same thing. It’s not close. It’s a reasonable effort to take into account the conservations that have happened through much of the session.”
Gramer, the Idaho Business for Education president, casts doubt on just how much those conversations were fueled by legislators. “They spent over $300K to elect voucher-friendly legislators in Idaho,” he said. “How can you say this is being driven by the legislators?”
Cargill is optimistic that, should the pilot program bill pass, there will be room to expand the program beyond its original 2,000 students.
“It’s a slow start, there’s no question about that,” he said. “But it’s a good start.”
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