GEM bill has friends and foes

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COEUR d’ALENE — A state legislative proposal to create scholarships for needy children has drawn local support as well as local criticism.

The GEM Act would create a tax credit scholarship program for low-income and disabled children, similar to those in place in 14 states across the country. Sen. Mary Souza said the program would benefit kids by giving them educational options.

“As a parent and someone interested in education, I know that not all children learn the same way,” said Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene. “Not all flourish in the same environment.”

Funding for GEM scholarships would come not from tax dollars but from private donors. In return, donors would receive tax credits for their contributions. Donations would be handled by up to three nonprofit scholarship organizations designated by the state board of education. The bill would require the organizations to demonstrate financial transparency to the SBOE.

GEM scholarship funds could be used to pay for qualified education expenses at accredited private schools, online learning programs, technical schools, speech therapists, and other non-public education providers approved by the scholarship granting organizations.

To be eligible for the GEM scholarship, a child would have to either be disabled or at-risk, or be the child of a military parent on active duty or one who died in the line of duty, or come from a family with an annual income at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

The child also must either have spent the entire last school year enrolled in public schools, or be entering kindergarten or first grade. Under the bill, scholarship recipients would be prohibited from enrolling full-time in a public school.

The Idaho Education Association, the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Association of School Administrators oppose the bill. The Coeur d’Alene Education Partnership fears that the bill could be a way to strip public schools of funds.

“We oppose school vouchers that redirect the taxpayer dollars from our public school children to private or parochial schools,” said the Coeur d’Alene Educational Partnership in a statement Monday. Since 2012, the group’s 12 board members have sought to give all students “access to superior public education from cradle to career,” said president Amy Voeller.

Both Souza and Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, denied that the GEM Act is a voucher program.

“This is not a voucher. This is an opportunity for a scholarship fund for children that are in need,” Souza said. Mendive explained that if some students chose non-public education, public school classrooms would be less crowded and students and teachers there could accomplish more. “Everyone wins!” he said.

Once established, the scholarship program would require a separate bill to establish how the tax credits would work, said Mendive. Souza said the tax benefit would likely be set at different rates for corporations and individuals. Mendive was cautiously optimistic that the bill will pass the House and get a Senate hearing this year.

Rep. Don Cheatham did not return calls for comment on this story.

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