Opinion: Can we improve public education by supporting private education?

The president and CEO of the Mountain State Policy Center, which brands itself as an “independent, free-to-market think tank,” recently put out an article on how to improve Idaho’s public school system. First, the MSPC asserts that we can restore confidence in public schools by using taxpayer dollars to fund private education. Second, it asserts that we must increase transparency in the public school budget.

MSPC’s first proposal calls for the legislature to create and fund Universal Education Savings Accounts, which parents can use to pay for their children’s private education. In other words, a form of voucher system, much like the Idaho Freedom Foundation has advocated for time and again over the years. Unlike the IFF, the think tank does not call for the complete destruction of the public school system, but its proposal would cause serious harm to the public schools.

Public education in Idaho has been chronically underfunded for decades, both for educational funding and for building and maintaining “facilities” (buildings and equipment). And it’s only gotten worse since the Idaho Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the legislature violated its constitutional mandate to “maintain a general, uniform, and comprehensive system of free public public schools.”

Spending per pupil in Idaho is the lowest among the fifty states. A recent legislative report revealed that the state will have to spend more than $1 billion to bring school facilities to a “good” condition. In its 2005 ruling, the court said this was the responsibility of the state, not the local school districts.

The Idaho Constitution never considered using taxpayers’ money to pay for private education. This was left to parents who might prefer to send their children to private or parochial schools. The constitution clearly states that no public funds should be used for religious education. Thanks to two recent US Supreme Court rulings, states must provide public money for religious education if and only if they pay for other private education. The only way Idaho can stop it from forcing taxpayers to subsidize religious schools is to reject MSPC’s Education Savings Account proposal.

Public schools in Idaho desperately need significant additional funding, to hire, support and pay qualified teachers for classrooms and to maintain facilities and build new ones. The authorized funding will help the special session, if it does materialize, but much more is needed. Beginning to divert taxpayer money to private and parochial schools, when the state violates its constitutional responsibilities to public schools, will undoubtedly lead to a citizen’s lawsuit against the state.

As for the issue of transparency, the MSPC is way back. You acknowledge that school budget information is currently available to the public, but is difficult to find in current reports. School-goers may simply ask that the information be presented in summary form or that they take the time to look at the reports. If we start disbursing taxpayer money to parents who want their children to have the luxury of private or religious education, how can the state ensure that every family uses taxpayer money properly? A savings account proposal would have almost no accountability.

Informed numbers of individuals suggest that the voucher offer will benefit people in urban centers, leaving rural parents well and dry. “85% of all Idaho’s private and parochial schools are located in urban centers,” notes Jeff Thomas, former superintendent of the Madison School District in Rexburg. This highly respected guru says voucher programs are a “luxury for the wealthy.”

For lawmakers on the fence, a recent poll commissioned by the Idaho Statesman could be helpful. The survey revealed that 58% of those surveyed believe the state spends too little on education and 63% said taxpayers’ money should not be used to help residents pay for private schools.

If we really want to improve our public schools, we must value our teachers, silence those who falsely claim teachers are indoctrinating or child-sitting and increase teacher compensation roughly equal to what teachers are paid in neighboring states. We could repair our old schools and build new ones with state money, as the state founders conceived, which would give an exemption from property tax to local property owners. Perhaps the MSPC can join in these efforts, which would go a long way toward restoring the effectiveness of our public school system.

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Jim Jones is a Vietnam veteran who served eight years as an Idaho attorney general and 12 years as an Idaho Supreme Court judge. He is a regular contributor to The Hill.

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