BOISE — Legislation to create the Strong Students Grant Program, sponsored by Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, and Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, once again sparked disagreement in the Idaho Legislature on Tuesday, with the amended bill failing narrowly, but a reconsideration vote still possible.
The Senate narrowly voted against it 18-16. It seemed HB 294a had been killed for good. But after a brief recess, Sen. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, who had voted against the bill, changed her mind and asked for a revote. The revote will likely take place Wednesday.
Debate focused on whether Idaho should approve grants that fund private school tuition and how the program would be funded.
On March 16, the Senate Education Committee voted in favor of amending HB 294 to remove the section of the bill that would have created a Strong Students Scholarship Program to cover expenses for students attending private schools, after many criticized it for being too voucher-like.
The amended version of HB 294 would instead only create the Strong Students Grant Program. The program would give grants to mostly low-income families for education-related purchases. Students could use the money on tutoring, extracurriculars, education equipment like laptops, college prep classes, mental health counseling, or private school tuition and fees.
Some senators were upset with the idea of money going to private schools when Idaho remains last in the nation in per-pupil spending.
“Our Idaho constituents are consistently saying at the polls that the level of funding provided by the state for public schools is not adequate, that they are willing to pay extra taxes for public schools,” said Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle. “Our Constitution does say that we have a duty to public schools. It does not say that we have a duty to fund private schools. … For the first time in Idaho history, we would authorize the use of public funds for private schools. It is a change which I think requires more conversation.”
“(Senators) tried to say that this doesn’t take money away from our public schools. Well, fellow senators, we have a fixed pot of money,” said Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow. “If we choose to spend it one place, we can’t spend it another way.”
In the amendment, the grant amount was upped from $500 to $750, and the number of students the program would be expected to help had been reduced from 70,000 to 53,000. The program would consist of $30 million in one-time federal funds and $10 million in ongoing state general funds. Prior to the amendment, the ongoing funds were set at $5 million.
It was these monetary changes that some senators were upset with rather than the private school tuition aspect.
“The amendment is different than what I voted on. ... It is a bridge too far for me,” said Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston.
Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa, called the bill “poor financial planning” because it was unclear how the Legislature would fund the program after the first year. He was concerned about children who would suddenly find themselves without funding.
“So we’re going to tell 40,000 kids that we’re not going to continue to fund something that may have been successful the prior year. That’s problematic,” Agenbroad said.