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Poll: Many Idaho voters unfamiliar with ‘school choice’ policy debate

Empty school classroom, exercise books and pens on table
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The Idaho Constitution strictly prohibits the use of public funds for any form of religious education. For the past 132 years, the separation of public money from religious instruction has been rigidly upheld in Idaho. SCOTUS has unfortunately provided a workaround, writes guest columnist Jim Jones.

Legislators say controversial K-12 policy will be a priority this session

Likely voters across Idaho showed strong support for more education funding, and mixed support for school choice and education savings accounts, in a poll commissioned by the Mountain States Policy Center.

But a large segment of likely voters in Idaho weren’t familiar with the policy idea of “school choice” that Idaho lawmakers expect to be a centerpiece of the upcoming legislative session, which starts in less than a month.

The policy center is a new organization focused on free market principles that launched in October and held a lunch meeting Tuesday to announce the poll results and host a panel of legislators who talked about the upcoming session.

More than one-third of Idahoans surveyed said they’re not familiar with school choice

Robert Jones, vice president of GS Strategy Group, said the poll included a representative sample of people by gender, age, political party and education level.

Respondents were asked to rate Idaho’s K-12 public school system, and 34% rated it as good, with 3% calling it excellent. More than half rated it as fair or poor.

Jones said Democrats tended to rate schools as fair or poor, while Republicans were more likely to rate them as good or excellent.

“I would attribute that to a very powerful drug called partisanship, which is that Republicans know Republicans are in charge in Idaho, so they want to think well of the people they’ve put in charge,” Jones said. “But even among Republicans, 42% say excellent or good and 51% say fair or poor.”

The top concerns for Idaho’s education system were academic results and level of funding, followed by 15% who were concerned about critical race theory and 9% concerned about sex education.

Those polled also expressed support for Idaho’s recent increases in funding for K-12 education, with 54% saying they strongly support the increases, including 77% of Republican respondents.

On the subject of school choice, 40% of those polled said they had a favorable opinion of school choice as an educational policy, but 35% said they had never heard of it.

School choice is a debate over funding for public education. It often includes discussion of programs such as vouchers or education savings accounts that would allow families to use the tax dollars that support students in public schools to instead pay for other educational pursuits, such as private school or homeschooling.

Meridian legislator: School choice isn’t meant to help the wealthy

Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, was part of the legislative panel at the Mountain States Policy Center lunch. She said people often frame school choice debates as trying to give preference to wealthy families, but that’s not the case, she said.

“People with means already have choice,” Den Hartog said. “We’d like to expand options for families who don’t have the means to make that choice right now.”

Den Hartog said she’s excited to have new legislators at the table this session and thinks they can “do some big things” this year on the subject of school choice.

The legislative panel also included Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, Sen. Ben Toews, R-Coeur d’Alene and Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale. Toews will be co-chair of the Senate Education Committee in the upcoming legislative session.

“School choice is my priority, it’s what I ran on,” Toews said. “Talking to constituents, going door-to-door … they were really supportive and passionate about school choice and specifically education savings accounts and what that could do, putting the free market principles of that kind of a program to education in our state.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.