Investments in public education benefit all Idahoans. Regardless of whether we have children attending school at any given moment, the advantages of strong public education resonate throughout our communities. Unfortunately, the latest effort by the out-of-state voucher lobby and a faction of Republicans to implement a school voucher scheme poses a grave threat to our already underfunded schools and the state budget.
House Bill 447 would start as a $50 million proposal to siphon public tax dollars to private, religious, and even for-profit institutions with zero accountability. What is particularly concerning is that the bulk of the money has no limits on eligibility. That means a working family in rural Idaho could subsidize private school tuition for millionaires in Boise. Data in states like Iowa back this up, showing voucher programs most often serve students from well-off families already enrolled in private schools. This not only creates a new budgetary obligation but also jeopardizes public school funding in future budgets.
Additionally, voucher costs have a frightening propensity to explode, absorbing larger portions of the state budget. A recent analysis of vouchers in seven states between 2008 and 2019 revealed hundreds of millions of dollars being redirected to fund vouchers at the expense of local schools, despite a rise in public school enrollment. In Arizona, where only 8% of kids receive a voucher, the program is projected to cost a staggering $950 million next year, $320 million of which is unbudgeted. Utah’s original voucher bill had a $42 million price tag. Less than a year later, vouchers are projected to cost $150 million.
Vouchers are too costly on their own. They are unfathomable in the context of our limited budget and the investments we’re failing to make in our children. Idaho already ranks last in the nation for per-pupil spending. Schools are struggling to retain qualified staff and we have over $1 billion in neglected facility needs.
We’re also ignoring opportunities proven to boost student success. For example, almost every other state invests in preschool because every $1 invested returns up to $16 to the economy, and kids are more likely to enter kindergarten ready to learn. Today, 47% of Idaho’s children enter kindergarten already behind according to our Idaho Reading Indicator.
Preschool is just one example of a proven investment that would increase student success. Vouchers, on the other hand, cut funding available to schools without generating any new educational services.
HB 447 would largely serve as a giveaway to families who need it the least. We don’t have a dime to spare, let alone $50 million for a voucher subsidy scheme. For the sake of our children, our schools, and our future, Idaho must reject vouchers.
Idaho Democratic Party Chair