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This column ran in Thursday’s Lewiston Tribune.Idaho’s Republican-led Legislature supports public schools because it has to.

The state constitution says so.

But the GOP Legislature goes out of its way to help private and parochial schools — using your tax dollars in the process — because it likes to.

This obsession for private schools leads Idaho Republicans down a rocky road.

Anytime you use the tax code to divert dollars into private schools, you are bleeding money away from a public school system so underfunded that it constantly breeds scary headlines.

Either Idaho gets dinged for having the next-to-lowest per pupil expenditure in the country or setting new records for levying local property taxes.

Idahoans already can make a direct contribution to any education service they want — and deduct a share of that contribution against their income tax bill.

The holy grail, however, is the more lucrative tax credit — where presumably the entire donation can be written off. A tax credit has the effect of draining general tax dollars meant to educate your child in a public classroom into the coffers of private and parochial schools — while apparently staying inside the lines of Idaho’s constitutional ban on the use of tax dollars for religious instruction.

But first things first.

Private school advocates want to get their foot in the door. Rather than call for a tax credit, they have fashioned a scholarship fund, drawing contributions from taxpayers to help four categories of students: those deemed to be at-risk, special needs, impoverished or children with parents in the military.

Never mind that unlike public schools, private academies do not fall under the 40-year-old federal mandates to provide special needs and at-risk students with what they require to receive a mainstreamed education.

Nor does the anticipated scholarship come even close to covering the cost of tuition, at least in some private institutions. So other than children of military parents, it’s not clear who will benefit from this package.

Never mind that the State Board of Education—which has been designated to administer the scholarship fund — unanimously opposes this idea.

So does state Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra.

So does the Idaho Education Association, the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Association of School Administrators.

So does Idaho Business for Education and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Never mind that in recent testimony before the House Education Committee, the only comments to break through that solid wall of opposition came from self-interested Catholic and private school advocates.

Never mind that the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, has indicated that passage of his handiwork is an initial step toward a tax credit down the road.

That’s also the expectation of Cornerstone Christian Academy in Post Falls, which proclaims on its website: “Idaho State moves closer to ‘School Vouchers.’ “

Besides, if the sponsors don’t anticipate one day passing a tax credit bill, why do they need the State Board involved in the distribution of private scholarship funds to students attending private schools? Why not leave that in the private sector entirely?

Nonetheless, the bill is chugging along. Last week the House Education Committee cleared it by a single-vote margin. On Monday, it also passed in the House.

Next comes the state Senate. Who knows what will happen there? Maybe somebody in that chamber will figure out the voters sent him to Boise to look out for kids in Idaho’s struggling public school classrooms.


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