Analysis: Fundamental discussion of what education means for Idaho people

This story was originally posted on on February 16, 2023.

On Tuesday, Bessie Yeley of Nampa testified remotely, against a $45 million education savings account bill. He came to the State House Wednesday, with his son, to testify in person. (Darren Svan/Idaho Education News)

Even before the six-hour hearing, which lasted two afternoons, the vote was already a deal.

It’s no surprise then that the Senate Education Committee approved a controversial $45 million education savings account bill. Even before the trial began Tuesday, five of the nine committee members had signed on as sponsors or co-sponsors.

The result – Wednesday’s 6-3 committee vote – was predictable. But the hearing was more than a mere formality. They instead provide insight into how Idaho people view their local school, and the role of education in the community. And how, as parents and instructors and taxpayers, do the people of Idaho feel about school choice slogans.

  • Shane Schulthies of Rexburg—a teacher with an online charter school—talks about his experiences raising 10 children. She has been able to adapt her children’s different needs by shuffling public, private and charter schools and homeschooling, but often it is costly. “You have to move to a system that allows choice, and this bill does that.”
  • Heather Stout lives on a farm and ranch outside Genesee; his children attended Genesee public school and later the University of Idaho. But he noted that his community has no educational options, other than public schools. “If this bill passes, it will wipe out small rural communities like mine.”
  • Carolyn and Bob Harrison of Idaho Falls took turns voicing their support. Their daughter attended a private religious school until seventh grade – when, Carolyn said, her daughter had to “fake it” for six years. “Idaho is poised for a market-driven, competition-based educational strategy that works for all,” said Tom.
  • Salmon’s Jody Brostrom talks about surviving a heart attack in 2017, and the importance of remote community non-profit hospitals. Smaller towns have enough trouble finding experienced medical professionals – and Salmon’s deteriorating elementary schools and chronic failure to get past bonding issues only made the recruiting process more difficult. “Most of the (applicants) with children submit job offers.”

These comments helped tie together several important threads in the debate on Senate Bill 1038, the education savings account bill that is now making its way to the Senate floor.

Supporters say ESA Idaho will drive school choice by putting money in the hands of parents. An ESA of $5,950 per student will make private schooling or homeschooling more affordable for more parents. Market pressure, they say, will drive innovation in public schools, and drive consciousness out of the classroom. “Competition is what provides ultimate accountability,” said Senator Tammy Nichols’ co-sponsored bill, R-Middleton, as he wrapped up the committee debate Wednesday.

Critics say competition is a false promise, especially in rural communities, where private and parish school offerings are scarce. According to their argument, the ESA program would use state funds to subsidize private schools in urban areas, at the expense of rural schools. As ESA programs grew and their prices ballooned, they said, rural schools had no choice but to turn back to the taxpayers for help.

The end result, they argue, will be the undermining of local public schools — the common good, and the focal point of rural communities. “Public schools are not bad products that need competition,” said Sharese Maynard, business manager for the Butte County School District.

For the record, the balance of this week’s testimony has come from opponents. But invariably, these turnouts reflect a self-selected sample — and often reflect the efforts of special interest groups to fill out registration forms.

Bottom line: Senate Education hears from more than 100 people Tuesday and Wednesday. And not just the usual crowd of Statehouse regulars. The Legislature’s remote testimony option allows Idaho people to speak in their native habitat: Home school mom Chantelle Holman has the opportunity to urge the committee to pass SB 1038, while one of her five sons warmly embraces her. Remote witnessing also breaks down geographic barriers, making shipping possible from Idaho Falls and Challis to Viola and Post Falls.

This week, lawmakers have the opportunity to hear from those outside the Statehouse bubble, about one of the year’s most divisive education laws that thundered around the Statehouse. And that has to be a good thing.

Sure, the senators heard from unscientific samples, but objective research doesn’t do much to gauge public opinion.

This year’s Boise State University Idaho Public Policy Survey found deep divisions within the ESA – with little plurality in support. But the researchers acknowledged flaws in the wording of their survey, which effectively combined charter schools with private and parish schools.

When the Mountain States Policy Center went into the field at about the same time, their researchers found a stronger support base on school choice — but more than a third of their respondents said they had no idea what school choice was.

This week is definitely not the last word in the ESA/school choice debate.

If SB 1038 manages to pass to the Senate, the bill will face another round of hearings in the House Education Committee—a committee that is more moderate and harder to knock out than Senate Education.

And it’s entirely possible that SB 1038 isn’t even the year’s final school choice bill. Voting against SB 1038—a proposal that was “perhaps too much, too soon”—Senate Education Chair Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, hinted at another proposal waiting in the wings, and carried a smaller price tag.

For now, SB 1038 is a contentious bill. This week’s debate prompted dozens of Idahoans to talk about something more fundamental: what education means to them.

Every week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis of education policy and education politics. Look every Thursday.