The President and CEO of the Mountain States Policy Center, which bills itself as an “independent free market think tank,” recently published a thought article on how Idaho’s public school system could be improved. First, MSPC claims that we can restore trust in public schools by using taxpayers’ money to fund private education. Second, he demands that we should increase transparency in public school budgeting.
MSPC’s first proposal calls on the Legislature to establish and fund universal education savings accounts that parents could use to pay for their children’s private schooling. A kind of voucher system, as the Idaho Freedom Foundation has repeatedly called for over the years. Unlike the IFF, the think tank is not calling for the total destruction of the public school system, but its proposal would seriously harm public schools.
Idaho’s public education system has been chronically underfunded for decades, both to fund tuition and to build and maintain “facilities” (buildings and equipment). It has gotten worse since the Idaho Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the legislature violated its constitutional mandate to “maintain a universal, unified, and thorough system of public, free community schools.”
Idaho’s spending per student is the lowest of the 50 states. A recent legislative report revealed that the state would need to spend over $1 billion to bring school facilities to “good” condition. In its 2005 ruling, the court said this was the responsibility of the state, not local school districts.
Idaho’s constitution never provided for taxpayers’ money to be used to fund private schools. This was left to parents who may prefer to send their children to private or church schools. The constitution clearly commands that public funds are never used for religious education. Thanks to some recent US Supreme Court rulings, states must provide public funding for religious education if and only if it pays for other private schools. The only way Idaho can stop coercing taxpayers into supporting religious schools is to reject MSPC’s proposal for educational savings accounts.
Idaho public schools are in dire need of significant additional funding to hire, support, and pay qualified teachers in the classroom, as well as to maintain and build new facilities. The funds approved in the special session will help if they actually materialize, but much more is needed. Beginning to divert taxpayers’ money to private and church schools when the state violates its constitutional duties to public schools will no doubt lead to a civil lawsuit against the state.
As far as transparency is concerned, MSPC is lagging behind. She acknowledges that school budget information is currently available to the public but is difficult to find in existing reports. Perhaps school sponsors could simply ask for the information to be provided in a condensed form or take the time to review the reports. If we start handing out taxpayer money to parents who want their children to have the luxury of a private or religious education, how could the state ensure that each family is using taxpayer money wisely? The savings account proposal would have virtually no accountability.
Many in the know say the voucher proposal would benefit people in the urban centers and leave rural parents out of the water. Geoff Thomas, former superintendent of the Madison School District in Rexburg, points out that “85 percent of all private and community schools in Idaho are in urban centers.” This highly respected educator says coupon programs are “welfare for the rich.”
For lawmakers on the fence, a recent poll commissioned by the Idaho Statesman may be instructive. The survey found that 58% of respondents believed that the state underspends on education and 63% believed that taxpayers’ money should not be used to help residents fund private schools.
If we really want to improve our public schools, we should take care to value our teachers, silence those who falsely claim that teachers are indoctrinating or nurturing children, and raise teacher compensation to roughly match what teachers in surrounding schools are states earn. We could use state money to repair our old schools and build new ones as the state’s founders intended, which would give local owners a property tax break. Perhaps MSPC could join this effort, which would go a long way towards restoring the effectiveness of our public school system.
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Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as the Idaho Attorney General and twelve years as an Idaho Supreme Court Justice. He writes regularly for The Hill.