In the education debate, words matter

By Mindy Cameron
Reader Contributor

While delivering his State of the State speech in January, Idaho Gov. Brad Little used the word “public” 11 times in reference to K-12 education funding.

Many lawmakers have a far different vocabulary when discussing Idaho’s education budget. Words like “choice” and “scholarships for private school tuition” and “education savings accounts.” Heather Scott, who represents a portion of Bonner County in the Legislature, is an outspoken critic of public education. She spews buzzwords about “woke agendas” in Idaho’s public schools and claims our schools are places of “liberal indoctrination,” including “radical gender identity.”

Words matter and it’s imperative that supporters of adequate funding for public schools hold Little to his words and know what’s behind the words of the “choice” advocates.

Mindy Cameron. Courtesy photo.

I spent a decade as a member of the Lake Pend Oreille School Board, and I am well acquainted with board members, teachers and administrators. I know firsthand that Rep. Scott’s claims are pure baloney. 

The legislative battle over education funding is not about what happens in the classroom, but where the money goes. Scaring parents and taxpayers is a campaign technique of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, whose agenda is to do away with public schools by directing taxpayer money to so-called choice initiatives: scholarships for tuition to private schools, vouchers and education saving accounts.

IFF is the real radical in this debate. It would leave existing schools, families and communities facing new and untested scenarios. And, to do so, it would violate the Idaho Constitution, which states: “It shall be the duty of the Legislature of Idaho to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” 

These are not idle words, and they have been upheld by the Idaho Supreme Court on five occasions.

Public schools are a part of Idaho’s history, dating to 1864 when the first public school opened with six students in a remote town called Florence, now a ghost town in Idaho county northeast of Riggins. 

In his history of Idaho, In Mountain Shadows, Carlos A. Schwantes writes: “Schools, no matter how crude by today’s standards, were sources of public pride and centers of community social life. They hosted dances and box suppers, literary societies, picnics and debates.” 

Most Idahoans, Schwantes writes, came to accept the idea of tax-supported elementary schools, while high schools slowly followed.

Today’s activities are different — no box suppers and literary societies — but public schools remain sources of community pride, especially in smaller, rural towns. A community attachment to sporting events and local athletes is the most obvious connection, but student academic achievements, and other activities and projects, fill the pages of hometown newspapers.

Joel Wilson has been a superintendent in Idaho rural schools for 14 years. In a recent commentary for Idaho EdNews, Wilson wrote that parent choices are already embedded in Idaho education: “traditional, homeschool, homeschool academies, charter schools.”

What the Freedom Foundation is lobbying for — vouchers, education tax credits and education saving accounts — Wilson said, “would lead to death by a thousand cuts to Idaho schools.” 

Gov. Little has said he does not support diverting taxpayer dollars away from “our constitutional and moral obligation to fund public school education.” His plan includes significant boosts for teacher and staff pay, scholarships for graduating seniors and career-technical training, among other smaller initiatives.

This is an unusual year for the Legislature and all sides agree on one thing: There is $410 million to spend on K-12 improvements. The battle is over how the money is spent — meeting the constitutional obligation to support public education or siphoning off taxpayer dollars to private education ventures.

Remember the words that matter most in this debate: public, taxpayer-supported schools as mandated in the Constitution that serve the entire community, or “choice” and tax money set aside to serve private, individual interests.

Mindy Cameron is a former newspaper editor who moved to Sandpoint in 2001. This article was written in coordination with North Idaho Voter Services, which will be hosting various guest writers, speaking on current issues before the Legislature and the voters.

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