A clear priority for many of the far-right, first-year members of the Idaho Senate, as well as many in the House, is to move Idaho toward a school voucher system.
That is a system that will drain and weaken Idaho’s already emaciated schools. And it is going to take a lot of hard work to keep it from happening.
There is lots of evidence that voucher programs don’t do much to improve student outcomes. Apparent improvements are almost always due to various kinds of selection bias — if there’s a private school that will accept only top students, and you compare it to a public school that has to accept all students, the private school will naturally look like it has better outcomes.
But that isn’t going to matter much when the Legislature convenes. The reasons most proponents of vouchers want to pursue them have nothing to do with improving student outcomes.
They’re simply opposed to free and equal education provided by a system of public schools. In the short term, vouchers offer a means to undermine it: allowing high-achieving students easy ways out, taking funding with them. Public schools are then left with a greater proportion of higher-cost, harder-to-educate students and less money to do it with.
In the long term, they prefer a world of fully privatized education, a world in which a student’s school is as good as their parents’ bank accounts. This, they say, is freedom.
The field where this debate will take place has come into definition after the organizational session, and it is stacked. That’s nowhere truer than on the Senate Education Committee.
The committee will be chaired by Sen. Dave Lent.
Lent is a relatively moderate third-term Republican senator from Idaho Falls who made his name in his local district through years of service on the District 91 school board before running for legislative office. He was a champion of creating the College of Eastern Idaho, the most prominent educational issue to divide moderates from hard-line conservatives in the Idaho Falls area when he first ran for office. He has also been a champion of career-technical education.
And his focus on practical issues has paid dividends for his constituents. An education at CEI remains cheap, and it has offered huge career benefits for the local community. Lent is the kind of practical, non-ideological candidate with on-the-ground experience who has long packed the Senate Education Committee.
Next year, other moderate Republicans on the committee include …
Nope, that’s it.
The vice chair will be Sen. Ben Toews. He doesn’t have much of a record, but on his campaign website, he pledges to support “education choice” (a code word for vouchers) to combat nonexistent “indoctrination” in schools. Not too hard to see which direction he’ll pull.
He will be joined by Sen. Lori Den Hartog, the furthest-right returning member of the Senate. She’ll be the closest thing to a second moderate on the committee. It will be rounded out by Sens. Tammy Nichols, who has more pictures of herself striking poses with AR-15s than visiting schools, and three other far-right first-termers: Cindy Carlson, Scott Herndon and Brian Lenney.
The committee’s Democrats will be Sens. Janie Ward-Engelking and Carrie Semmelroth, both highly competent and hopelessly outnumbered.
Lent isn’t the only thing standing between Idaho and a voucher system. Any voucher bill will also have to get past House Education Committee Chair Julie Yamamoto, who is likely to oppose many of them as well. Pro Tem Chuck Winder may be able to kill some bills that move out of the Senate Education Committee.
But none is as likely to have as difficult a task as Lent, who will have to battle the entire GOP side of his committee.
Lent’s constituents in Idaho Falls should speak up loudly and clearly if they oppose vouchers. He is likely to listen to them. And if Idaho is going to avoid eroding its public schools with steps toward a voucher system, Lent needs to be a stone wall.
Bryan Clark is an opinion writer with the Idaho Statesman.
Bryan Clark: 208-377-6207, Bryan Clark