CALDWELL — In September, Gov. Brad Little convened a special legislative session that included a bill directing $410 million annually for public schools.
But some familiar with education policy are wondering whether lawmakers will let a large portion of that funding go to public schools.
Panelists broached the subject as part of an Idaho Policy and Politics Forum held at the College of Idaho on Thursday afternoon. Part of the discussion about education in Idaho included what to expect in the coming legislative session.
The three panelists were Rep. Scott Syme, Idaho School Board Association Deputy Director Quinn Perry, and Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy Director Alejandra Cerna Rios.
Of the $410 million approved during the special session, $330 million will be for the Legislature to allocate “as it sees fit,” Syme said.
Syme expressed interest in some of that money being used to pay down school bonds, an idea that has been floated in recent discussions of how to appropriately fund school construction. The “statewide cost for the bonds” is about $200 million, he said.
“If we took that, and either paid off those bonds, and put money aside for those school districts that don’t have funds for facility improvements or capital improvements, to me, that helps a (property owner) who was paying those property taxes, and it also frees up that money for the school district,” Syme said.
Syme will not be returning to the Legislature next year following a loss to fellow incumbent Judy Boyle by six votes.
However, Perry said, “we will certainly have our battles ahead of us as it comes to this legislative session” because “there are some people who do not believe that that money should be going to public schools.”
Aside from how the $330 million will be spent, Perry said she expects there to be some discussion of creating a school voucher system in Idaho. School vouchers are “a scholarship, a credit, or a direct government payment for parents to be able to take their K-12 child and enroll them in a private or parochial school,” Perry said. The idea has grown in popularity across the country.
Perry is not buying it.
“I think that is a very astounding way to spend your tax dollars, and that is because those institutions have no accountability to policymakers, to the public, and to the taxpayers,” she said. “That would be a very drastic shift as to how we as a state have decided to spend our taxpayer dollars.”
Arizona already has a voucher system, and 80% of applicants receiving the voucher had no prior enrollment in public school, “which means that it’s essentially providing a tax break for wealthy individuals who are already able to pay for tuition to private school,” Perry said.
Cerna Rios agreed that discussion of school vouchers would be on the table. She said she would be concerned about such a program because “private schools don’t necessarily have the same guarantees for students with disabilities, or students that need additional or different kinds of approaches when it comes to succeeding in the school system.”
“It really is a question of radically changing how we ensure this public, uniform education for our citizenry, with a lot of serious implications,” Cerna Rios said.