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Rural Idaho not ready for Ed-Exit

| September 7, 2021 1:00 AM

It is shocking that any Idaho legislator would pander for a positive “Ed-Exit” rating by voting down the public education budget. Have they thought through their U.S. and Idaho constitutional duties and how this impacts families in rural Idaho?

What is Ed-Exit you ask? The Ed-Exit.com website calls itself an ongoing “national movement” to abandon public or government-run schools in favor of home, private or parochial schools. The movement surged during the COVID-19 pandemic as parents sought non-public options for continuing their kids’ education during lockdowns.

Now, a survey by the Herzog Foundation has found parents of students who moved to non-public options are 80 percent satisfied with the results. This same survey shows that parents who kept kids in public schools were only 50 percent satisfied with that choice. Ed-Exit’s national spokespeople are using this dissatisfaction gap to discourage investment in public education, urging “no” votes on next year’s school budgets.

But this debate is only relevant to larger metropolitan areas where multiple private and parochial options exist. Rural Idaho already lacks “economies of scale” and struggles to keep elementary schools open. No one is investing large sums in a private academy in Grace or building a new parochial school in Aberdeen. And few rural families could afford these private options if they existed.

Ed-Exit’s rural answer has been home school. And yes, dual-income families were, at one time, less common in rural communities.

But the 2008 recession ended that. Wages have lagged outside urban areas so that today dual-income families are just as common in rural America. So rural families have few “spare parents,” limited bandwidth and higher transportation costs weighing against homeschool.

Ironically, voting to defund public schools is being called “pro-freedom.” Securing freedom is why we have a Constitution, and it implies choices. For Idaho’s rural communities, the short-sightedness of reducing education options and calling that “freedom” is breathtaking.

The stability of a republican form of government depends mainly upon the intelligence of the people, or so says Article IX, Section 1 of the Idaho Constitution. The authors of the U.S. Constitution knew that the ability of the people to read, write and reason is what would make popular self-government possible.

James Madison, presenter of the Virginia Plan and “Father of the Constitution,” was emphatic that “a diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.”

Sam Adams, an early anti-federalist who opposed the Constitution until adding a Bill of Rights, famously observed that “if virtue and knowledge are diffused among the People, they will never be enslaved. This will be their great Security.”

Thomas Jefferson summed up the consensus of most free thinkers: “Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge. Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights, and where learning is confined to a few people, liberty can be neither equal nor universal.”

With rural areas lacking other good education options, a “no” vote on the public-school budget is definitely not pro-freedom. It could more accurately be called “playing suicidal chicken with the diffusion of knowledge that is essential for freedom.”

Even Benjamin Franklin, writing as Poor Richard, chided those complaining about education expenses. A lack of education, he said, “condemns us to be taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by our pride, and four times as much by our folly.”

An Ed-Exit that is a parent’s choice is one thing. An Ed-Exit imposed by the Legislature without viable alternatives sends panic into the homes of caring parents across Idaho.

For now, make sure schools are funded to be efficient, high-quality deliverers of knowledge essential for both employment and self-government — goals that are both constitutional and prudent. Franklin was right: abandoning public schools, especially rural schools, looks like idleness, pride and folly all wrapped up together.

Trent Clark of Soda Springs is acting chair of United Families Idaho and has served in the leadership of Idaho business, politics, workforce, and humanities education.