Wendy Horman

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls

BOISE — Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, and Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, presented a bill that would create grants and scholarships for students. The scholarships have been controversial, with one superintendent calling it a “Trojan horse for a voucher program.” After lengthy testimony from those on both sides, the House Education Committee approved the bill with a do pass recommendation on Wednesday 11-4. It will now go to the House floor.

The first part of the bill seemed to receive universal approval. It would create the Strong Students Grant Program. Modeled on Gov. Brad Little’s Strong Families, Strong Students program, it would give grants to mostly low-income families for education-related purchases. The program would consist of $30 million in one-time federal funds for an estimated 70,000 students. Students could receive up to $500. Those in both public and private schools could apply for a grant.

The second part is the Strong Students Scholarship program that would give 90% of the money the state spends per-student to parents to use on private education. Only students who previously attended a public school but now no longer wish to attend a public school may apply.

For the scholarship program, the bill is requesting $5 million in ongoing state general funds to assist approximately 800 students. Another $5 million would go to administrative costs of both programs.

The bill gives an example of how the breakdown of funds would look based on past years’ numbers. In the 2019-2020 school year, the state paid an average of $6,713 per student. Under the new bill, the student would have received 90% of that in scholarship money for private school education, which comes to $6,041.

Opponents of the bill have said what the bill is actually calling for is a school voucher program. Voucher programs give students the money a state would normally spend on them in a public school to be put toward private education.

The bill avoids using the word “voucher,” and Horman denies that her scholarships are vouchers.

“This bill is not a voucher bill that would send funds directly to institutions. This sends funds to parents and puts them in the driver’s seat,” Horman said.

Those against it testified that private schools in Idaho have little accountability. They are not subject to the same standards or required to report the same results. Several superintendents urged the committee to vote no.

“Instead of establishing uniformity and thoroughness, it will lead to an irregular and unregulated system of education by spawning hundred of independent systems that are no longer subject to established laws and rules that create uniformity and thoroughness in our public schools,” said Scott Woolstenhulme, superintendent of Bonneville’s District 93.

They also noted that these scholarships would have no benefit to much of rural Idaho.

“Rural areas have very little if any private schools. Private schools are not going to open in Wallace, Cambridge or Castleford,” said Karen Echeverria, director of the Idaho School Boards Association.

Paul Stark, general counsel for the Idaho Education Association, said the bill would not actually benefit low-income students. He noted that many private schools cost far more than the $6,000 scholarship. While the bill would prioritize low-income applicants before going to families making more than $75,000, he thought few low-income families would be able to afford private education even with the scholarship.

”Individuals that are making under $50,000 a year are not going to be able to pay that difference if they get $6,000. They’re still not going to send their kids to private schools,” Stark said.

Those in favor said the bill gave more options to parents who were dissatisfied with their public schools. Several parents testified to their positive experiences of taking their students out of public schools.

“Our private school tuition is more than my mortgage. And I do that because education is important to my family. I’m here today because I believe families can make good decisions for their kids,” said Jake Ball, a Meridian father who pulled his children out of public schools during the pandemic.

Mother Shonda Propst testified that her daughter had not done well in public school. Her daughter Brooklyn had severe anxiety to the point of not being able to speak in class. After moving her to a private school with much smaller classes, Brooklyn felt much more comfortable. According to Propst, Brooklyn is doing so much better with her speaking that she wanted to testify at the hearing.

”I used to feel nervous in my large classroom because there were a lot of people, and I didn’t like to talk in front of them. And I really enjoy my new classroom because everyone is included in everything,” Brooklyn Propst said.

The bill will likely be debated and voted on in the House next week.