Education savings account bill introduced in Idaho Senate committee

The Idaho Senate Education Committee on Tuesday introduced a bill modeled on Arizona’s universal education savings account program with a stated cost of $20 million from state funds previous statements by lawmakers.

Sen. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, is a member of the Education Committee and a sponsor of the bill. The law, titled Freedom in Education Savings Accounts, would establish savings accounts using public funds amounting to 80% of the study funding last calculated by the state.

Committee chairman Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, did not allow discussion of the bill before Senator Ben Toews, R-Coeur d’Alene, requested it be printed. The bill could be granted a full hearing before the Senate committee in the coming weeks of the legislative session.

Unlike 529 education savings accounts, which are tax-benefit investment accounts intended to be used for post-secondary education such as college or trade school, education savings accounts typically take the per-student spending allocated by a state’s student funding formula and distribute that Money to parents for use at a private school or for homeschooling. The bill does not specify whether religiously affiliated schools would be included as eligible entities, but Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa, introduced a bill Monday that would overturn Idaho’s Blaine Amendment, which the Legislature and all other public entities use public funding prohibits supporting religious organizations.

According to current calculations, that amount would be $5,950 for Idaho students.

“Idaho has a limited choice of schools, but that’s not enough,” Nichols told the committee, saying some children face discrimination in education simply because of where they live, their family’s income, a disability or their race. She then went on to describe other reasons families might want to find another option.

“Declining test scores, overcrowding, students not meeting grade level benchmarks, bullying, staff shortages, curriculum issues, indoctrination (sic) and the list goes on contribute to numerous frustrations with the status quo,” Nichols said.

According to the law, the funds could be used for:

  • Tuition or fees at a private school or online program approved by the Idaho State Department of Education
  • Required textbooks
  • Educational therapies from a licensed or accredited provider, curriculum, and supplemental materials
  • Pedagogical and psychological assessments, rental of assistive technology and Braille translation
  • Tutoring and tutoring for recognized professional and life skills classes
  • Fees for standardized tests or college entrance exams, textbooks required by an eligible post-secondary institution
  • Fees for maintaining the Education Savings Account
  • Tuition and after-school programs offered by a public school
  • school uniforms and transportation
  • Computer hardware and devices used primarily for educational purposes

A savings account would empower parents “rather than unions,” Middleton senator says

Nichols said 26 states introduced bills for education savings accounts this year, including Utah, Iowa, Washington and Wyoming. While the policy’s supporters say it’s beneficial for students, families and schools, opponents have pointed to states like Wisconsin where there are costs much larger inflated than originally estimated and led to an increase in property taxes.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed organization that drafts and promulgates model laws aligned with conservative policies, did involved in establishing the Arizona Education Savings Account program, including providing model legislative language.

“The goal is that through an ESA, parents are the ones we empower, not the unions and education bureaucracies that have dominated school governance and the learning and higher standards that students need,” Nichols said. “We can no longer ignore the facts and must change the business as before.”

According to a statement from the Idaho Freedom Caucus, of which Nichols is a member, individual accounts are randomly audited quarterly and annually to prevent misuse of public funds. The bill would also create a Parent Review Board to review the implementation of policies and procedures for the program, parental concerns, and any work done to handle complaints about the program. The commission would consist of six members who are parents of students participating in the program and would be appointed by the leadership of the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate, and two would be appointed by the governor.


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