BOISE – The Idaho House narrowly approved a $10 million program to provide tax credits to businesses and individuals who fund scholarships for private and religious schools.
Supporters say the bill will promote school choice for Idaho parents plus save the state money when students leave public schools. But opponents say it will siphon money from Idaho’s budget and undermine public schools that already are underfunded.
Wednesday’s 35-33 vote sends the bill to the Senate. Two lawmakers were absent: Republican Reps. Fred Wood, of Burley, and Frank Henderson, of Post Falls.
The bill, sponsored by Coeur d’Alene GOP Rep. Bob Nonini, would limit the scholarships based on a family’s income. For instance, children from a family of four that earns $63,900 annually could qualify, according to the bill.
“Everybody talks about choice,” said Rep. Mark Patterson, R-Boise, whose children attend private school. “This is a bill that actually creates choice. This gives families that don’t have the means that some of us do to actually send their children to private school.”
Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said parents who want to send their children to private school should bear the financial responsibility.
“It is their right and their choice, but the state should not subsidize that choice,” she said. “We do not have enough money for public schools right now.”
Some said the bill may violate the Idaho Constitution, at least in spirit.
According to the state’s founding document, the Legislature can’t use public money to “aid… any church or sectarian or religious society.”
Proponents said this bill includes an elegant work-around: This is a tax credit, said Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, not a voucher provided by the state. “There is no direct transfer of funds,” Hartgen said.
Individuals and businesses who donate money to scholarship-granting organizations could reduce their tax liability by up to 50 percent. Only students who are transferring from a public school or entering kindergarten or first grade would be eligible.
Supporters say reducing public school enrollment would cut Idaho’s per-student funding obligation. But opponents say removing a few students from a class wouldn’t reduce a school’s staff or overhead costs.