The president and CEO of Mountain States Policy Center, which styles itself as an “independent, free market think tank,” recently floated a thought piece on how to improve Idaho’s public school system. First, MSPC contends we can restore faith in public schools by using taxpayer money to fund private education. Second, it contends we should increase transparency in public school budgeting.
MSPC’s first proposal calls for the Legislature to establish and fund universal education savings accounts, which parents could use to pay for private schooling for their children. In other words, a form of voucher system, much like the Idaho Freedom Foundation has repeatedly called for over the years. Unlike the IFF, the think tank does not call for the outright destruction of the public school system, but its proposal would cause serious damage to public schools.
Public education in Idaho has been chronically underfunded for decades, both for instructional funding and for construction and maintenance of “facilities” (buildings and equipment). It has gotten worse since the Idaho Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the Legislature was violating its constitutional mandate to “maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”
Idaho’s expenditure per pupil is the lowest of the 50 states. A recent legislative report disclosed that the State would have to spend over a billion dollars to bring school facilities up to “good” condition. In its 2005 ruling, the Court said this was the responsibility of the State, not of local school districts.
Idaho’s Constitution never contemplated that taxpayer money would be used to pay for private schooling. That has been left up to parents who may prefer to send their kids to private or parochial schools. The Constitution clearly commands that no public money ever be used for religious schooling. Thanks to a couple of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, states must provide public money for religious schooling, if and only if, they pay for other private schooling. The only way Idaho can keep from forcing taxpayers to support religious schools is to reject MSPC’s education savings account proposal.
Idaho’s public schools desperately need substantial additional funding, both to hire, support and pay for qualified teachers in the classroom and to maintain facilities and build new ones. The funding authorized in the special session will help, if it actually materializes, but much more is needed. To start diverting taxpayer dollars to private and parochial schools, when the State is violating its constitutional responsibilities to public schools, will undoubtedly give rise to a citizen lawsuit against the State.
As to the issue of transparency, MSPC has it backwards. It admits that the school budgeting information is currently available to the public, but just hard to find in existing reports. Perhaps school patrons could simply ask that the information be provided in summary form or take the time to peruse the reports. If we start dishing out taxpayer money to parents who wants their kids to have the luxury of private or religious schooling, how could the State possibly ensure that each family is properly using the taxpayer money? The savings account proposal would have virtually no accountability.
Numbers of informed individuals say that the voucher proposal would favor folks in the urban centers, leaving rural parents high and dry. Geoff Thomas, the former superintendent of Madison School District in Rexburg, points out that ”85% of all Idaho’s private and parochial schools are in urban centers.” This highly respected educator says voucher programs are “welfare for the rich.”
For legislators on the fence, a recent poll commissioned by the Idaho Statesman may be instructive. The poll disclosed that 58% of the respondents believed the State spends too little on education and that 63% said taxpayer money should not be used to help residents pay for private schools.
If we really want to improve our public schools, we should make a point of valuing our teachers, hushing those who falsely claim teachers are indoctrination or grooming children and increasing teacher compensation roughly equivalent to what teachers in surrounding states are paid. We could fix our old schools and build new ones with state monies, as the State’s founders contemplated, which would give property tax relief to local property owners. Perhaps MSPC could join in those efforts, which would go a long way toward restoring the effectiveness of our public school system.
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Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho Attorney General and 12 years as a justice on the Idaho Supreme Court. He is a regular contributor to The Hill.