February 9, 2023

Poll reveals mixed ratings for Idaho education, lack of knowledge on school choice

Mountain States Policy Center — a nonpartisan, Idaho-based think tank dedicated to policy research — released results of a statewide opinion poll Tuesday that showed mixed reviews of Idaho’s education system, and hosted a legislative panel to review the results and talk priorities for the 2023 legislative session.

The organization also offered an overview of 10 recommendations for the session, including expanding school choice options for families, and considering legislation to create more transparency within public education.

“We produce ideas,” MSPC founder Chris Cargill said Tuesday. “We produce research and analysis that will hopefully help the lawmakers in this room make good decisions.”

MSPC’s poll, conducted by GS Strategy Group, was based on at least 400 interviews with representative samples of Republicans, Democrats and independents across the state, according to GS vice president Robert Jones.

Education issues emerged as a top concern.

More than half the respondents rated Idaho’s education system as fair or poor, while 34% gave it a good rating and just 3% rated it excellent. Republicans were more likely to give schools higher ratings, Jones said.

Education funding and academic results were respondents’ biggest concerns. A majority of respondents said surplus money should be used to support K-12, and 81% said they support the education funding increases made over the past 10 years.

GS polled about specific education policies, including school choice and transparency legislation. A majority of voters on both sides of the aisle support greater transparency in education.

“They want to see where their tax dollars are going,” Jones said. “They want to see how their schools are performing.”

On school choice, 40% of respondents said they’d support school choice legislation, while 13% responded unfavorably. But more than a third of respondents said they don’t know what school choice is.

“For the people who are out there talking about school choice policies, legislators who are out in their districts, remember that,” Jones said. “If you look at this, a third of the people you run into, one out of three, is never going to have heard of school choice.”

Lawmakers want to see more school choice options

A panel of current and incoming lawmakers discussed the poll results and policy issues, including public education funding, school choice and taxation.

Reps. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, and Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa joined Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, and freshman Sen. Benjamin Toews, R-Coeur d’Alene, on Tuesday’s panel. Boyle, Den Hartog and Toews will all have seats on legislative education committees.

Den Hartog, Boyle and Toews agreed that expanding school choice will be on their agendas this session. Den Hartog suggested expanding the Empowering Parents grants to cover more students of different needs and income levels, and said she ultimately wants Idaho to implement education savings accounts.

But Den Hartog has doubts about the reality of passing school choice laws.

“It is going to be an uphill battle in the Idaho Legislature for any education choice policies to get through,” she said.

Opponents of some school choice laws, like the education savings account bill that died in a House committee in March, say a diversion of funds would be detrimental to public schools, especially in rural areas. But Toews said school choice laws wouldn’t endanger public schools.

“There’s a lot of people that love their public schools, they’re happy with their…kids going there,” he said. “I don’t think that there’s going to be a mass exodus.”

Choice is important for families who have children who learn at different rates or have different needs, Toews said.

Boyle said legislators should put students first, not systems.

“School choice is about raising the bar for the kids,” she said. “America has always been about choice. And with choice comes competition and innovation. …Why should we just continue funding a system that has failed a lot of our kids?”

Skaug said he supports the public education system, but wants to see more choice too.

After watching Tuesday’s panel, Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, said he wants to see more funding for teachers’ wages and school facilities before allocating funds to education savings accounts or school choice options. Idaho’s dead-last ranking in per-pupil expenditure and turnover in teaching and classified positions, Berch said, could explain why parents are dissatisfied with the education system.

“Money follows the support unit,” said Berch, a House Education Committee member. “The support unit is the student and the chair they sit in and the bulletin board on the wall and the track and the band and the cafeteria workers and the bus drivers and everything it takes to have a school, which in many parts of most of the state is the center of the community. … You start taking money away from the support unit, you lose all the things that come with (it).”

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