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Don’t let public schools become 'Peter'

by KAREN LANSING / Contributing Writer
| January 17, 2023 1:00 AM

Most of us are familiar with the expression, “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” It means that Peter is being robbed so that Paul can receive a benefit. To mix metaphors, it means that Peter is “getting the short end of the stick.” That is exactly what some right-wing legislators have in mind for Idaho’s public schools. In their scheme, public schools would get to be “Peter” so that private schools can enjoy being “Paul.”

At a special session last September, the Idaho legislature authorized expending $330 million of Idaho’s budget surplus to support K-12 education. However, the lawmakers at that special session did not decide how the $330 million for schools would be distributed. That question was reserved for the 2023 regular legislative session, and that is where the mischief is planned that would rob public schools so that private schools—both parochial and secular—can enjoy the state’s largesse.

 To circumvent the Idaho Constitution’s prohibition against giving state funds to religious institutions, the monies pilfered from public education would not be delivered directly to private schools. Instead, parents could apply for vouchers or “scholarships” which could be used to pay for private school tuition or for homeschooling expenses.

Many school districts are severely underfunded and will remain so even if the full $330 million is delivered only to public schools. For example, the Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations estimates that the backlog for needed school repairs is at least $874 million. Yet the legislative proposal would cause public schools, which serve the vast majority of Idaho’s school-age children, to be deprived so that parochial schools and other private schools can be gifted with state monies. It is not a coincidence that this scheme serves the goal of the far-right Idaho Freedom Foundation to eventually starve public schools out of existence and turn all education over to private institutions and homeschooling.

The public schools from whom state support would be siphoned include those in the lowest-income areas of the state, and the beneficiaries would include high-earning parents who can already afford to send their children to private schools. In other words, lower-income Idahoans would subsidize the more affluent, and the educational experience of needy public school students would suffer so private school offerings can be enhanced. This is a “redistribution of wealth” that injures low-income areas where school districts struggle to hire and retain qualified teachers and keep the school doors open. 

In 20 rural counties, there are no private schools. Consequently, in these rural areas, the state funds taken from public schools will leave the community entirely.

I intend no criticism of private schools. Many of them beautifully serve the needs of their students and deliver terrific educational experiences. But Idaho taxpayers should not be asked to subsidize them at the expense of public schools.

On last November’s election ballot, there was an advisory question asking whether voters approved of the special legislative session’s allocation of the state’s budget surplus. It seems likely that most people who voted “yes” believed that the money designated for education would go to support their local public schools, not to subsidize parochial schools and other private institutions across the state. If the planned redirection of state funds to private schools passes the legislature, it will be a bait-and-switch trick on those voters.

Idaho’s public school students and their parents deserve better. Please contact your legislators to let them know that this scheme is not acceptable.

Karen Lansing is a former Idaho State Appeals Court judge.

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