What the education freedom pledge really means

There is a pledge being circulated throughout the United States whereby state legislators and governors can make a vow to privatize public education and “to take their children’s taxpayer-funded education dollars to the education providers of their choosing – whether it be public, private, charter, or homeschool” Idahoans can already choose to enroll their student(s) in public charter schools, which are funded with taxpayer dollars. In other words, the Education Freedom Pledge aims to recruit state lawmakers to create legislation in their states that takes public tax dollars to fund private schools across the country – a voucher or tax credit program.

In Idaho, where 3/4 of private school enrollees reside in only four of Idaho’s 44 counties, and 20 counties have no private schools at all, school vouchers would be detrimental to the interests of the vast majority of Idaho students, especially those in rural areas of the state.

The American Federation for Children (AFC) is circulating The Education Freedom Pledge. AFC is a national school choice advocacy group founded by Betsy DeVos, a radical advocate for privatizing public education who served as the controversial Secretary of Education until she resigned last January. The Idaho Freedom Foundation is promoting the pledge and encouraging Idaho politicians to sign on. So far six Idaho legislators have taken the bait and affixed their names to this commitment to privatize Idaho’s public education system: Representatives Priscilla Giddings, Karey Hanks, Tammy Nichols, Greg Ferch, Ron Nate, and State Senator Christy Zito.

The concept of school vouchers is an attempt to redirect Idaho taxpayers’ dollars to support private schools, many of them religious, which is a direct violation of Article IX, Section 5 of the Idaho State Constitution that specifically prohibits such state appropriations.

“Neither the legislature nor any county, city, town, township, school district, or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian or religious society, or for any sectarian or religious purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church, sectarian or religious denomination whatsoever…”

The Idaho Legislature came dangerously close to enacting a voucher program last year. House Bill 294 would have created a “renewable” scholarship program equal to 90% of the state’s average per pupil expenditure (approximately $6,041) for students to use if they agreed NOT to enroll as a fulltime student in a public school. The funds could be used to enroll in a private school or for homeschooling. A coalition of homeschools opposed the voucher program on the grounds that they did not want to have to abide by any government strings associated with the vouchers. The legislature was willing to commit $5 million dollars from the general fund in ongoing support for this voucher program. The legislation passed the House, but stalled in the Senate.

The intent and the consequences of enacting such legislation would be devastating to our already underfunded public schools. How and where would the vast majority of students in rural Idaho use those vouchers? They couldn’t, because there are no private schools in most of Idaho’s rural areas. So Idaho taxpayers would find themselves subsidizing private schools in urban areas of the state, further diminishing the already limited education dollars the state allocates to its mostly rural public schools. Keep in mind that Idaho is 51st in the nation for per pupil expenditures.

It’s time to identify and support candidates and legislators who understand the need to sustain and maintain a “general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools”. That was the charge Idaho’s founding fathers included in Article IX, Section 1 of the state constitution in 1890. Idahoans need to reject the legislators and extremist organizations that continue to advocate the dismantling of our public schools.

Written by retired Idaho superintendents Dr. Don Coberly, Dr. Geoffrey Thomas, and Wil Overgaard.