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Legislators discuss school choice funding at town hall

The Kootenai County Republican Central Committee organized the event, during which legislators answered questions submitted by the public.
Credit: Coeur d'Alene Press

SPOKANE, Wash. — More than 200 people attended a town hall meeting of 10 North Idaho legislators Saturday at Candlelight Christian Fellowship in Coeur d'Alene, reports the Coeur d'Alene Press.

The Kootenai County Republican Central Committee organized the event, during which legislators answered questions submitted by the public.

In attendance were Sens. Carl Bjerke, R-Coeur d’Alene; Phil Hart, R-Kellogg; Doug Okuniewicz, R-Hayden; and Ben Toews, R-Coeur d’Alene; as well as Reps. Joe Alfieri, R-Coeur d’Alene; Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens; Jordan Redman, R-Coeur d’Alene; Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene; Elaine Price, R-Coeur d’Alene; and Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls.

Most questions centered on a bill modeled after Arizona’s universal education savings account program.

The proposed bill would take 80% of the per-pupil spending allocated by the state’s student funding formula — currently $5,950 per student — and distribute that money each year to parents or legal guardians to spend on their children’s education, outside of public schools.

All 10 legislators expressed support for the program, which would cost Idahoans about $20 million in the first year.

“It allows the parents to have complete control of their child’s education,” Toews said.

Parents or guardians could put the funds toward “any education expenses,” Toews said, including homeschooling or private religious schooling.

The Blaine Amendment in Idaho’s Constitution prohibits any public entity, including the Legislature, from appropriating public funds to support religious organizations, including schools. Mendive indicated that first passing the funds from the state to the parents is a “workaround.”

Rep. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa, has introduced a bill that would repeal the Blaine Amendment. Toews said he believes that’s unnecessary in order to enact the education savings account program.

“The parents are choosing for it to go toward that, not the state, so it’s not state-funded religious activity,” Toews said.

Hart said he’s particularly supportive of religious education.

“If ESA is going to create competition between Christian schools and public schools, I think that’s a great thing and I’m going to support the bill,” he said.

Toews emphasized that, under the proposed legislation, the state would not determine specifically which items parents could spend the state funds on.

“It’s very broad,” Toews said. “There is no testing mechanism. That’s a common complaint by the education that we’re not testing. They’re like, ‘How do we know? What’s the accountability mechanism?’ My answer is the best accountability mechanism is the parents of the child.”

The funds would roll over annually and could be used for post-secondary education.

The legislators largely opposed House Bill 24, which would provide money for high school graduates to pursue a four-year or two-year degree, career technical education or workforce training. The bill is one of Gov. Brad Little’s top education priorities for 2023.

“It’s the governor’s corporate welfare, college welfare, giving $8,500 to every high school graduate for what an unelected board deems is in-demand careers,” Price said.

Around the midpoint of the town hall, Art Macomber, who is North Idaho College’s attorney, handed each legislator an envelope containing what he said was draft legislation he wrote during his unsuccessful campaign for Idaho Attorney General. He said the legislation proposes legal services offices for the House and Senate.

“It will give you attorney-client privilege protected, policy neutral, totally confidential, like a hermetically sealed law office that each of you can go to with your proposals,” Macomber said.

Legislators also discussed the possible return of House Bill 666, which would remove an exemption that protects libraries, schools, museums, colleges and universities and their employees for “disseminating material that is harmful to minors” if they are “serving the educational purposes of such an organization.” The House passed the bill last year, but it died when the Senate did not take it up.

Price said the bill’s designation was apt.

“We’re fighting evil,” she said, adding that the bill could reappear as soon as next week.

The bill received backlash.

“The free speech people came out of the woodwork,” Barbieri said. “The resistance is huge.”

Hart noted that the bill was unpopular and that many Idahoans did not think it was necessary.

“We have to apply pressure,” Hart told the audience. “If you can figure out how to apply pressure in other parts of the state, that would be very helpful.”

This story has been updated to correctly attribute Barbieri’s words.

The Coeur d'Alene Press is a KREM 2 news partner. For more from our partners, click here.

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