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Senate kills Strong Students grant bill … maybe

Idaho Statehouse
Posted at 5:24 PM, Apr 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-07 19:24:17-04

BOISE, Idaho — This article was originally published Kevin Richert in Idaho Ed News.

The Senate Tuesday narrowly voted down a bill to create a “Strong Students” grant program for low-income families.

But the 16-18 vote ­— which came after more than an hour of sharply divided floor debate — might not be the final word. Late Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, made a motion to have the Senate reconsider Tuesday’s vote. The procedural manuever means the Senate could cast another vote on the bill, and possibly reverse its decision.

Tuesday’s debate reflected the controversy surrounding the grant bill, House Bill 294.

Supporters said the bill would give parents a greater say in education, by allowing them to spend up to $750 a year on equipment or tutoring that would best serve their children. Opponents focused largely on one line in the bill: language that would have allowed parents to put state- and federally funded grant dollars toward private school tuition and fees.

“Our Constitution does say that we have a duty to public schools,” said Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle. “It does not say we have a duty to fund private schools.”

And while bill sponsors modeled HB 294 after Gov. Brad Little’s Strong Families, Strong Students program — which provided federally funded education grants last winter — the private school tuition program was a deal-breaker for Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise.

“That changes everything for me,” she said.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, said the private school support is consistent with other state education policy — such as the publicly funded Opportunity Scholarship, which students can use to offset costs at Idaho’s public, private and religious colleges.

“This is not a threat to public schools and it was never intended to be,” Den Hartog said.

Other supporters talked about the need to engage parents in their children’s educational process.

“This bill buys parental involvement,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Steven Thayn, R-Emmett. ”Funding gives parents a voice.”

Tuesday’s Senate floor vote culminated a roundabout process for HB 294 — a hotly debated bill that received the backing of school choice advocates, but ran into staunch opposition from education lobby groups.

The House passed HB 294 on March 9, on a 47-22 vote. And the House-passed version contained another controversial component: It would have created a state-funded scholarship program for private schools.

Sponsors agreed to pull that scholarship language — deciding instead to try to get a standalone grant program through the Senate.

But even with that amendment, HB 294 ran into bipartisan opposition. Ultimately, five of Senate Education’s nine members voted against the bill Tuesday.

Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston took issue with the amendments. The rewritten bill siphoned away the $5 million of state dollars earmarked for scholarships, doubling state funding on the grant program to $10 million. “It’s a bridge too far for me,” he said.

Roll call

Yes (16 Republicans, 0 Democrats): Kelly Anthon, R-Burley; Regina Bayer, R-Meridian; Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls; Den Hartog; C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle; Todd Lakey, R-Nampa; Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls; Patti Anne Lodge, R-Caldwell; Fred Martin, R-Boise; Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls; Jim Rice, R-Caldwell; Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg; Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene; Thayn; Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens; Chuck Winder, R-Boise.

No (11 Republicans, 7 Democrats): Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa; Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot; Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise; Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton; Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville; Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon; Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs; Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls; Johnson; Abby Lee, R-Fruitland; David Nelson, D-Moscow; Mark Nye, D-Pocatello; Ali Rabe, D-Boise; Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum; Ward-Engelking; Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise; Woodward; Zito.

Absent (1 Republican) Peter Riggs, R-Post Falls.

Idaho Education News covered Tuesday’s Senate session remotely.