BOISE — A new bill by Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, and Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, focuses on student scholarships and grants. It was approved for introduction last week and will get a hearing at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the House Education Committee.

The bill has sparked conversations around the idea of school vouchers, with some opponents declaring this bill essentially a voucher program sugarcoated in grant money. Voucher programs have become both popular and controversial across the country in recent years. As of 2019, 18 states had voucher programs, according to EdChoice. If signed into law, this would be Idaho’s first voucher program.

Proponents of vouchers say they offer more choices to students who would otherwise be unable to afford private school tuition. Those against vouchers say it takes away money from already underfunded public schools.

The bill has two parts. The first is the Strong Students Grant Program.

“Part one is essentially formalizing the incredibly successful program Strong Families, Strong Students that we saw in the previous year,” Horman said.

Last fall, Gov. Brad Little’s Strong Families, Strong Students program used $47.4 million dollars in CARES money to provide grants to 18,465 families to assist students whose learning was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The state received 39,908 applications for this program. Recipients were given up to $1,500 per student or $3,500 per family. Families were able to use the funds awarded to them to get reimbursement for education-related purchases they have made since March 2020.

The grant amount would be lower under this bill at $500 per student. The income thresholds will remain the same: Families making $50,000 or less would be prioritized, followed by families making $75,000 or less. Any money left over will be open to all other income levels.

All students, private or public, could apply for the grant program. The second part of the bill, the Strong Students Scholarship program only applies to private school students who previously attended public schools. Income qualifications are the same as the grant program.

This bill would give private school students a scholarship “equal to 90% of the average per-student amount that we had spent in the previous fiscal year,” according to Horman.

Horman is requesting $30 million in one-time federal funds for the grant program and estimates it will fund “up to 70,000 students.”

For the scholarship program, the bill is requesting $5 million in ongoing state general funds to assist approximately 800 students. 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.

Horman is requesting another $5 million in ongoing state general funds to pay administrative costs.

So is Horman’s bill a voucher program? Though the bill seems to deliberately avoid the word “voucher,” her scholarships do fit the definition of one. Voucher programs give students the money a state would normally spend on them in a public school to be put toward private education.

Horman sees the funding source as a significant aspect of her bill.

“None of these funds come from the public school budget. These are new, ongoing state general fund revenues,” Horman said.

The Idaho Education Association has come out against the bill. IEA President Layne McInelly said that money should instead go toward public schools. He pointed out that Idaho is currently ranked number 51 in the nation — dead last — in per-pupil spending and has the sixth-largest class sizes.

“It’s going to be siphoning money away from public schools. And in a time where we need more public funds to continue the work that we’re doing, it’s not the time to be taking away those funds,” McInelly told the Post Register.

He said the extent to which Idaho public schools are underfunded has contributed to the difficulty in attracting and retaining teachers to Idaho. McInelly also stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges to students and increased the need for support systems within schools.

“We know that in public schools, we have social and emotional needs for our students that aren’t being met. So to be able to increase funding for nurses and counselors and psychologists within all of our school buildings is a very vital thing that needs to happen, instead of trying to take public funds and have them utilized in the private sector of education,” McInelly said.

While McInelly does like the idea of providing grant money to low-income students, he said he cannot support a grant program that is coupled with a voucher program.