TWIN FALLS — Magic Valley school leaders are divided on a proposal moving through the Idaho legislature to create a scholarship fund to help some families pay for private school tuition.
House Bill 590, which would create a “Guided Education Management Act,” was introduced Feb. 14 and narrowly passed the House — with a 39-31 vote — on Monday.
It would allow students who are at risk, from low-income families at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, have special needs, or children of active duty military members or whose parent was killed in the line of duty to receive a scholarship to help pay for private school expenses.
Supporters of the bill say it provides more choices for students in need. But opponents counter it would divert money away from the public education system and is a veiled attempt at creating a school voucher system.
“I was actually really disappointed that it passed the House,” said Brady Dickinson, superintendent of the Twin Falls School District. “I know myself and many other superintendents in the area contacted legislators directly about the potential for opening the door for public funding to go toward private education.”
No state general fund money would be used, but the bill calls for the Idaho State Board of Education — which has unanimously opposed the legislation — to oversee the scholarship fund.
If signed into law, families could use scholarship money for qualifying private school expenses such as tuition, fees, textbooks and other instructional materials, and computers. Money would come from private contributions, gifts and grants.
Kevin Newbry, superintendent at the private Lighthouse Christian School in Twin Falls, is following the bill closely. “It’s definitely a great move in the right direction,” he said.
Newbry said he sees it as “win-win,” especially in places where public schools are overcrowded and dealing with budget issues. “This can only help them,” he said, adding public and private schools are in it together with educating children.
Some groups such as the Idaho Education Association feel they’re going to lose dollars, Newbry said, but he thinks it will save state money because scholarships will be funded by outside sources and not from state coffers.
The bill, he said, is a great opportunity for people who can’t afford a private education or Christian education to have the ability to pursue it. “It’s obviously falls in line with school choice.”
Dickinson said he believes in school choice and parents’ right to choose what’s best for their kids.
“But with one of the lowest funded education systems in the nation, it’s just challenging in Idaho where we’re scramming to use every dollar of public funding effectively,” he said.
Idaho’s Constitution is pretty direct with the separation of church and state, Dickinson said, and most of Idaho’s private schools are religiously affiliated. On its face, the bill may seem like a small change, he said, but “it has the potential to become a slippery slope.” Dickinson said it’s difficult to say how the Twin Falls School District’s enrollment could be affected if the bill becomes law, but doesn’t think it would cause a drastic difference.
Dickinson said he’s worried it may open up the door to a voucher system or more tax credit systems in Idaho.
It’s a concern shared by a handful of Idaho education groups — including the Idaho Association of School Administrators, Idaho School Boards Association, Idaho Education Association and Parent Teacher Association — which have also opposed the bill, Idaho Education News reported Monday.
On Monday, IEA president Kari Overall issued a statement, calling the House’s action “very disappointing” and saying it’s an “unnecessary bill that could pave the way for diverting public funds to private and religious schools.”
Tiffany Mayes, a parent and school board president at Acorn Learning Center — a Twin Falls private school that serves preschool through fifth-graders — said she doesn’t think the topic has come up among the board.
Newbry said private school families are already paying taxes toward the public education system and private school tuition on top of that. Lighthouse Christian School — which serves more than 300 students from kindergarten through 12th grades — charges yearly tuition and registration fees ranging from $3,570 to $5,807, depending on the grade level.
About 40 percent of students receive financial aid or a discount, such as for multiple children in the same family and free or half-priced tuition for school employees.
In total, the school provides about $300,000 in discounts every year. Even with financial assistance, a private school education is “still a big commitment on families,” Newbry said.
One thing that helps, though, is a federal law that went into effect in December to expand 529 education savings accounts to include private kindergarten through 12th grades, he said. “That’s huge.”
The Idaho legislature’s bill has led to strong responses on both sides. And with the session likely wrapping up later this month, many education officials will be watching closely.