With Chairwoman Julie VanOrden controlling the swing vote, the House Education Committee voted to advance a private school scholarship bill Wednesday.
Pushed by Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, House Bill 590 would create a new scholarship that certain students could use for tuition at a private schools, private online schools, tutoring facilities, or to pay for standardized tests and more.
To be eligible, the students would need to be at-risk, special needs, come from poverty or belong to a military family.
Vander Woude and other supporters said the bill promotes school choice and empowers parents of disadvantaged children by opening up new options.
Opponents said HB 590 excludes public school students and could rely on state tax credits to divert money away from state coffers that support K-2 public schools. Other opponents said the proposal was a private school voucher bill masquerading as a scholarship bill — a charge Vander Woude denied, although he said he would push for state tax credits.
More than 100 people waited in line outside the Legislature’s largest committee room before 8 a.m. Wednesday for a chance to attend the hearing. Public testimony during the two-hour hearing ran 12-4 against the bill.
Private school educators, a school reform and school choice advocate and a Catholic school administrator backed the bill.
“Our public school failed us,” said LeAnn Villegas, a teacher at St. Paul Catholic School and the parent of a special-needs student who has thrived in smaller classes at the private school.
Villegas said the bill would provide more families more opportunities to pursue a private school education.
“The benefits of these (scholarship) programs are clear,” said Tom Greene, an advocacy director for the Jeb Bush-founded nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education. “It’s in the stories of parents who are empowered with choice, who knew the public school wasn’t serving their kid and serving them well.”
But four school superintendents, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, Idaho Business for Education, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators and the Idaho Education Association all opposed the bill.
Several opponents argued that private schools often lack bus services and aren’t obligated to provide services to students with disabilities or accept federal funding to run such programs.
“Every public school in Idaho has a statutory obligation to address the needs of their most vulnerable kids,” Weiser Superintendent Wil Overgaard said. “I’m not sure private schools in Idaho can come close to serving those needs or allocating the resources that are needed.”
Mountain Home Superintendent James Gilbert said the bill represents a clear push from private school supporters to get a piece of the public school funding pie.
“This is clearly, to me, an attempt to skirt the Blaine Amendment (a constitutional ban against diverting state funds to private or religious schools) and ultimately implement a voucher system in the state.”
Interestingly, State Board of Education Executive Director Matt Freeman said the board has not taken a position on HB 590, even the bill outlines new responsibilities for the board that Freeman said he does not understand. The State Board won’t meet to discuss a position until Friday, Freeman said.
The bill passed on a 9-7 committee vote.
VanOrden, R-Pingree, likely knew that she had the power to kill the bill via an 8-8 tie vote. VanOrden had questions about the bill, and said she was unsure whether its passage would leave public schools on the hook for special-needs students who move to a private school under the scholarship. She also told Idaho Education News she wondered whether the bill changes the State Board’s role and was concerned the bill does not give the State Board rule-making authority, as numerous other education bills do.
In the end, VanOrden voted to pass the bill, sending it off to the House floor with a recommendation it also pass. However, VanOrden warned her committee that she reserves the right to seek out more information and, potentially, vote or debate against the bill on the House floor.
That sets the stage for a potentially awkward debate next month on the House floor, where the bill’s prospects for passage would appear strong under a Republican supermajority that deeply values both school choice and parental empowerment.
The only tense moments during the hearing came when VanOrden warned committee members to remain respectful and “keep your comments from sounding somewhat accusatory.”
A moment earlier, new Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, had attempted to pit Boise Superintendent Don Coberly against others who testified, asking Coberly if he was accusing others of being dishonest. Coberly did not take the bait, and said he would never dispute the individual experiences of those who testified. Instead, Coberly said his comments were based on large-scale studies of the effectiveness of private scholarship programs or vouchers.
After VanOrden’s admonishment, order returned and there were no other breakdowns of legislative decorum.
How they voted
(a yes vote was a vote to pass the scholarship bill, a no vote opposed it)
Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding: No
Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City: No
Rep. Margie Gannon, D-St. Maries: No
Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls: Yes
Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell: No
Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley: Yes
Rep. Gayann DeMordaut, R-Eagle: Yes
Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene: No
Rep. Don Cheatman, R-Post Falls: Yes
Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth: No
Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene: Yes
Rep. Lace Clow, R-Twin Falls: Yes
Rep Judy Boyle, R-Midvale: Yes
Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins: Yes
Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise: No
Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree: Yes
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