News Opinions / Op-eds

Challenges of Educating Our Children

Branden Durst is a Republican Candidate for Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction

President Reagan once said, “Our leaders must remember that education doesn’t begin with some isolated bureaucrat in Washington. It doesn’t even begin with state or local officials. Education begins in the home, where it is a parental right and responsibility.” Unfortunately, politicians love to talk about how important parents are in education, but for all the talk, there is very little action. The Empower Parents in Education Act (HB 62) is more than just talk. The Act would restore power in a child’s education to its rightful place, the parents. It would do so by creating the most expansive school choice program in the United States.

The philosophy behind the Act is simple: parents know best. Unfortunately, all too often parents are left out of the education decision making process for their children. The Act corrects this grave error by putting money in the hands of parents to decide when, where and how their child should be educated.

The importance of restoring the proper role of parents as decision makers in their children’s education is not trivial. Further, the importance of empowering parents with the financial means to make those decisions is as critical. This is because, as we have all heard countless times, public education seems to focus a great deal of attention on money. By putting money in the hands of parents, parents become the focus of the system, just as they should have always been.

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So how does the bill work? Let’s do a deeper dive.

First, unlike other prior attempts to expand school choice in Idaho, the Act uses the current public education appropriation as its basis for funding. In other words, it doesn’t add money and it doesn’t take it away. It simply says whatever we spend on public schools, that is what will apply to the directives of the Act. In that way, it doesn’t require an increase or decrease in funding.

The Act creates an Education Savings Account (ESA) for every school aged child in Idaho whose parent or guardian desires to participate. The decision to utilize an ESA rather than a traditional voucher is intentional for many reasons. The primary benefit to using an ESA rather than a voucher comes to governmental oversight of non-public education.

With a voucher program, non-public schools could rightfully be concerned that accepting funds may come with it a new set of strings that dictate what can be taught and who can do the teaching. That concern of governmental intrusion into the operation of non-public schools is eliminated by using an ESA.

The amount of the ESA each student receives is determined by a couple of straightforward formulas based upon the number of participating students and the total amount appropriated by the state legislature for public education. Current estimates place the annual value of the ESA at approximately $4,800.

Participating families don’t have to use the ESA to attend a non-public school. In fact, it is expected that the vast majority of families will continue to send their children to their local public school. The Act is agnostic about where a child is educated. It only cares that parents are making the decision, without being coerced by financial barriers that preclude other options.

If a parent decides to have their child educated at a non-public school, they aren’t required to spend all the money in a single year. If, for example, they are able to find a program that costs less than the total value of the ESA, they are able to save up to 30% of the ESA and roll it over to the next year. In fact, they can do so each year and the money can be saved until the student is 24 years old. The funds in the ESA may then be spent on a variety of post-secondary or career training programs. This has the added benefits of encouraging fiscal responsibility and also reducing the need to take on student loan debt after high school.

The Act also uniquely gives public school districts an incentive to work with non-public school students, something that is entirely lacking in the current funding system. It does this by creating a new concept known as a Home District Allocation (HDA). The HDA is a percentage of the funding that goes to the local district for every student participating in the ESA program, including students who opt to attend a non-public school. The only exception to this is if a student enrolls at a different public school outside of their home district. In that scenario, the money follows the student to the other public school (including charter), just as is the case today.

Another important component of the Act is the removal of the many strings currently attached to state funding. Presently, when a school district or charter school receive funds from the state, the funds are highly restricted in their use. While the legislature may have a good reason for this, it severely limits the ability for local decision makers to most effectively and efficiently spend the funds. For example, a district may be appropriated $300,000 for technology, but may not have a need for that sort of technology investment.

The Act recognizes these differentiating local needs and cuts the strings. It says, local decision makers know their local needs and we want them to use their ingenuity and leadership to maximize the funds they are appropriated. For example, a district that is struggling with teacher retention may want to create a student loan forgiveness program in exchange for a commitment by an educator to stay in the district. The options are only limited by the creativity of the district.

Beyond creating the ESA, the most important aspect of the Act is the rewriting of the funding formula. Most people assume that when the state appropriates money to districts, it does so equitably from district to district. This is nowhere near reality. In fact, there can be vast differences in per pupil appropriations between districts, even those that are similarly sized and have similar student body populations. For example, in the Treasure Valley, the Boise School District, which already has the ability to raise more money locally due to being a charter district, is also appropriated significantly more per student ($2,000 to $3,000) than other districts in Ada and Canyon Counties. The Act ends this inequity.

However, while equally funding per pupil is important, it is also recognized that it can cost more to educate a child in some locations, especially rural parts of our state. That’s why the Act makes clear that small districts, those with less than 2,000 students, will never see a decrease in their per pupil funding. That safety guard is important to rural schools and ensures they won’t be run over a financial cliff like a herd of buffalo.

To that end, the Act increases or maintains the per pupil funding for over 95% of public school districts and charter schools and increases or maintains the per pupil funding for over 85% of public school students. It does so without increasing taxes or spending.

The Act seeks to restore the standard set forth by President Reagan. It is a powerful tool that both empowers parents and drives more economic efficiency from our existing public education appropriation. It solves a variety of problems in our current system and, most importantly, stops the talk and actually acts on the belief that parents should be the decision makers of the child’s education.

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