Unions versus their members

If you’ve ever compared our fair state of Idaho to Florida, it’s time to ‘fess up: you were less than nice about Florida, weren’t you? Maybe not last week, but it’s hard to not feel more than a little smug when matching up Idaho to this Florida, or this one, or this one.

Go ahead and click – I picked stories that are safe for work.

However, since a little humility is good for the soul, you should also click on this story about Doug Tuthill, former Florida teachers union president and current president of Florida’s Step Up for Students. Step Up for Students distributed over $330 million in private school tax credit scholarships to 51,000 low-income Florida children in 2013.

Doug says he became a union leader in order to increase individual teacher/employee empowerment. Given that a union’s job is supposed to be making life better for its members, it makes sense that a teachers union of professionals ought to be more like a sports players union, and less like Norma Rae. A teachers union should work to leverage the power of talented individuals, rather than consolidate its own power at the expense of free agency.

Unfortunately, the national teachers unions and their state affiliates have chosen the latter. The next time someone tries to argue that what’s best for the teachers union is also best for students, think about Doug Tuthill, school choice, and what’s actually best for teachers and students.


How to get 5000+ Idaho kids excellent educations, right away.

by Briana LeClaire
There’s a group of Idaho schools with track records of excellence that are not operating at anything near capacity. That’s a tragedy in a state with acknowledged educational challenges, and lawmakers ought to fix it.
According to a newly-released study, “A Survey of Idaho’s Private Schools,” Idaho’s private independent schools could accommodate 5200 – 5325 more students RIGHT NOW.
kids running to school
The schools say they wouldn’t need expensive building campaigns, or more teachers than those that could be hired with the increased income. Students lucky enough to be in private independent schools already are paying average tuitions between $4,000 (elementary) and slightly more than $6,000 (high school) per year. Idaho’s private independent schools include a few expensive outliers, so the median tuitions are quite a bit lower, ranging from approximately $3,500 to $5,000.
What creates the gap between the 3 percent of Idaho students enrolled in private independent schools, and the 27 percent who would be if they could? (That’s another number from another survey.) Many families say they can scrape together private school tuition for one child or maybe two, but Idaho families often come in larger versions than that. What parent wants to make that kind of a Sophie’s Choice?
They shouldn’t have to. The Idaho Legislature can take away the Sophie’s Choice in favor of school choice and excellence by enacting any of several laws, including the creation of tax credit tuition scholarship programs. It’s past time it does so.

Wild living at Idaho’s semester school

Alzar School in Cascade is where entrepreneurs, visionaries and founders Sean and Kristen Bierle have built a very different kind of high school. It’s a college prep “semester school” meaning students attend for one semester away from their home high school, which might be located anywhere in the country.

Alzar founders Kristin and Sean Bierle, aka "Ma and Pa"

Kristin and Sean, aka “Ma and Pa”

Up to 24 students live in yurts (year-round) while at the Cascade campus, but they spend a lot of time offsite living the Idaho wild life of camping, kayaking, climbing, etc. Four teachers live onsite, plus Kristin and Sean. In the season of mud (spring) teachers and kids take off for Chile to enjoy the Southern Hemisphere’s autumn.

Pretty cool stuff, Sean and Kristin. Thank you for building your dream and for your addition to Idaho’s independent schools.

Irish diplomacy

I loved seeing a story about Bishop Kelly High School’s 50th anniversary on the front page of the Boise paper this morning. The feature photo of school chaplain Father Don Fraser (not David, caption writer) administering Communion at a school mass reminded me how much my family enjoyed him when he was pastor at Our Lady of the Lake Parish in McCall.

Father Fraser is kind, wise, and in possession of a puckish sense of humor as evidenced by the sign he hung over the door to the parking lot: “Remember: the first person to leave mass early was Judas.”


Message received, Father! 😉

At any rate, happy 50th birthday Bishop Kelly. Here’s to many more years of helping raise up young Idahoans.

One of two ways to not choose Common Core.

According to the Idaho State Department of Education, having one’s child enrolled in a private school is one of only two ways to opt out of Common Core standardized testing.


Read the letter here.

The Idaho Federation of Independent Schools is unaffiliated in the Common Core Conflict. Some successful private independent schools have aligned their curricula with the Common Core standards. Whether they administer the Common Core-aligned tests is a different matter altogether, but even if they do, results aren’t shared with the State of Idaho.

Why (not) vouchers? Part 2

by Briana LeClaire

woman backing up

I need to back up for a moment and explain why it is thought Idaho would need its constitution amended for school vouchers to be created.

James G. Blaine was this fellow from Maine who lived from 1830 to 1893. At a time when newspapers openly identified with political parties, Blaine owned and edited a Republican newspaper which became his entree into politics. After election to the Maine Legislature, Blaine became a Congressman, Speaker of the United State House of Representatives, Senator from Maine, and the United States Secretary of State. He also was a three-time Republican Party presidential nominee.

In 1875, President Ulysses Grant began publicly calling for a Constitutional amendment that would mandate free common schools, and outlaw the flow of public money to religious schools. America would thereby absorb and integrate the millions of recent Irish and other immigrants who had brought Catholicism with them to these shores – horrors! Being American clearly meant being Protestant with no quarter given to separate, papist schools. Oregon would later effectively outlaw Catholic schools entirely; it took a trip to the United States Supreme Court to make them legal again.

There's a lot happening in this famous anti-Catholic Thomas Nast cartoon. Check it out. http://tinyurl.com/nyn2t3p

There’s a lot happening in this famous anti-Catholic cartoon. Check it out: http://tinyurl.com/nyn2t3p

As former Speaker of the House (Democrats had taken control of Congress) Congressman Blaine took up President Grant’s cause. The proposed United States Constitutional amendment failed to pass, but supporters got similar laws passed in all but 11 states. Idaho was just coming into the Union and got a Blaine Amendment* enshrined into its state Constitution.

All of the Blaine Amendments are worded slightly differently, and are judged to be of differing strengths. Idaho is thought to have a pretty strong one. Article IX, Section 5 of Idaho’s Constitution says this (emphasis added):

SECTARIAN APPROPRIATIONS PROHIBITED. Neither the legislature nor any county, city, town, township, school district, or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian or religious society, or for any sectarian or religious purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church, sectarian or religious denomination whatsoever; nor shall any grant or donation of land, money or other personal property ever be made by the state, or any such public corporation, to any church or for any sectarian or religious purpose; provided, however, that a health facilities authority, as specifically authorized and empowered by law, may finance or refinance any private, not for profit, health facilities owned or operated by any church or sectarian religious society, through loans, leases, or other transactions.

I’m no legal scholar, but “no public money in support of religious schools, none of the time” is the message I’m receiving here.

Despite our Blaine Amendment, if Idahoans decided money meant for education ought to follow children to the schools their parents prefer, including to religious schools, we could do it without amending the Idaho Constitution. The Idaho Legislature could create a tax credit tuition scholarship program that would allow income tax credit in exchange for donations to funds awarding scholarships for children to attend private independent schools. Money retained by the taxpayer in the form of a tax credit is money that has never entered the state treasury, and therefore is not public money that would be subject to the Blaine Amendment.

Supporters of such a tax credit bill have introduced it into the Idaho Legislature three times. In the 2014 session, Representative John Vander Woude of western Ada County got it through the House with a more than 2/3 majority, but the chairman of the germane Senate committee refused to hear the bill.

Should Representative Vander Woude try it again? Tell me what you think.

*A clause written into the body of a Constitution is hardly an amendment, but the term Blaine Amendments sticks to this day.

Why vouchers? Part 1

by Briana LeClaire

More than a few freedom-loving Idahoans have told me they’re in favor of school choice, but against school vouchers because of the risk of strings being attached to public money.


Are you one of these folks?* Then this post is for you.

First, to define terms: I mean “vouchers” the way Milton Friedman meant it. Born in Brooklyn, Friedman was the son of Jews who had fled Eastern Europe, and he harbored no illusions about how governments crave and abuse power. Nevertheless, he thought it appropriate for state governments to mandate taxes for the purpose of funding every child’s education. The funding would be transmitted to eligible families in the form of a voucher. Protection from government coercion would come mostly from vouchers being spent in diverse schools freely chosen by the families of school-aged children.

For many years now, our federal taxes have paid for college educations for certain persons in the same way a k-12 voucher would work. Some Americans are eligible for Pell Grants (the poor) and the GI Bill (veterans.) College students belonging to those groups may take what are essentially federal vouchers to any school that will accept the money.

Notable colleges, like Hillsdale and Christendom, do not accept public money so they can maintain their independence. Christendom College won’t take federal student loans, but it will accept GI Bill monies and Pell Grants because they are seen as attached to the student. Hillsdale won’t be party to any federal monies in order to not have to worry about any threat to its mission from conditions accompanying public dollars.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of colleges and universities do take federal money, including religious institutions which by all appearances have remained true to their church roots. I’m thinking particularly of BYU-Idaho, which enjoys a reputation for continued faithfulness to its religious mission. Yet it accepts Pell Grants, the GI Bill, and federal student loans.

Has there been mission-drift at BYU-Idaho due to conditions placed upon federal funding that flows to the school? I’m curious to know what you think. However, I imagine the school’s administration would tell us it has vigorously protected its right to teach students as it sees fit, and I further imagine many alumni would agree.

I don’t know why it couldn’t be the same for independent Idaho k-12 schools that would accept state vouchers.

*Whom I love and adore, by the way. Truth to power.

Choice: the secret sauce

by Briana LeClaire

This is a slightly edited excerpt from a speech I gave to a civic group.

When I started on this project, one things I wanted to find out was why there hasn’t yet been a statewide association of private schools in Idaho that has stuck. There have been associations that have begun, but after not too long, they have all faded.

I’ve discovered the vast array of Idaho private schools. They span a dizzying array of educational philosophies, programs, pedagogies, physical layouts of the schools themselves, schedules, classroom technologies, and on and on.

I’ve also discovered that similar private schools often compete with one another. For example, a family that is interested in the International Baccalaureate school probably would not consider sending their child to the classical Christian school. However, are the classical Christian school and the evangelical Christian school, physically located in Meridian less than five miles apart, competing for some of the same students? You bet they are.

So to recap: private schools are, generally, very different from one another, except for when they’re similar. In those cases, they’re competitors.

The end result of all this has been private schools have concluded, very reasonably I think, that their time and energy is best spent doing what they do best, which is educating kids.

Wait a minute. THAT’S what private schools have in common!

What private schools have in common is THEY WORK. And I propose to you that the reason they work is not DESPITE, but BECAUSE OF choice and competition.

In all of their diversity, spanning not just left to right or east to west, but more like all the points of the compass, the outcomes of private school educations have been the kinds of citizens we want to have.

They don’t all vote the same way. They don’t all worship the same place. They don’t ALL worship, at all.

But, on the whole, graduates of private schools are desirable citizens. They’re creative. They pay taxes. They contribute to the health and wealth of our society.

So if the kids who come out of private schools, who then go on to contribute to society, are not all products of the same program – if they are, in fact, notably diverse – then what’s the secret sauce?

The secret sauce is choice.

Nobody forces a child to go to any private school. Nobody assigns a child to a private school according to his ZIP code. Parents choose a private school because it fits their child and their values.

Choice facilitates the ever-elusive parental involvement. What gets parents involved is having skin in the game. They picked the school, so there’s more than a little self-interest – there’s even a little ego – involved in making sure things are working out. I guarantee everybody with a child going to a private school is paying at least some attention.

School choice also improves the behavior of the entity on the other side of the educational transaction. Let me ask you this: where do you expect to receive better customer service? At a restaurant that is one of many different restaurants you can choose? Or at the DMV? Which of those two is ANY private school going to be more like?

Okay. Some big, overarching, command-and-control program is not what makes private schools succeed. Choice is the secret sauce.

In a nutshell, the Idaho Federation of Independent Schools exists to give all Idaho families a taste of the secret sauce. We are allied with everyone fighting for more school choice. We want to facilitate choice so that students can get into the schools that suit them best, and we want the money to follow them there.