House Education Committee outlines funding priorities

The House Education Committee Monday threw its support behind budget proposals to raise teacher pay, reverse cuts to discretionary funding, launch literacy proposals and boost classroom technology.

Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, brought in Legislative Services Office Deputy Manager Paul Headlee to walk lawmakers through the budget proposals.

Committee members identified their funding priorities based on the budget proposals submitted by Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra and Gov. Butch Otter.

The committee generally did not get into specific funding levels, but instead offered a list of general priorities.

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Rep. Ryan Kerby

Here’s what some lawmakers said they valued.

Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth:

  • Raising teacher salaries through the second year of the career ladder.
  • Restoring discretionary spending to $25,696 per classroom unit.
  • Increasing funding for academic and career counseling.
  • Funding literacy proposals to provide supplemental instruction for young readers.
  • Increasing funding classroom technology.
  • Establishing the rural schools center Ybarra proposed.
  • Increasing funding for raises for classified employees (Kerby said this would a top priority of his if he thought employees would get significant raises.)

Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise:

  • Funding literary proposals.
  • Increasing salaries through the career ladder.
  • Increased classroom technology.
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Rep. Ilana Rubel

Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise:

  • Increasing teacher salaries through the career ladder.
  • Restoring discretionary funding.
  • Backing Otter’s full $10.7 million literacy recommendation.

Rubel said she hopes the committee will fight for top education funding levels across the board, adding that nothing in Otter’s and Ybarra’s budget requests appeared frivolous.

“The career ladder is absolutely indispensible,” Rubel said. “We, as a body, would lose a tremendous amount of credibility if we don’t appropriate every dime in the career ladder.”

On Tuesday, DeMordaunt will go before the budget-setting Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to outline committee priorities.

One interesting tidbit that emerged from Monday’s meeting is that state budget analysts think Ybarra’s proposal represents a 7.6 percent funding increase from 2014-15. In January, Ybarra told JFAC that she advocated a 7.5 percent funding increase.

But the 7.5 percent figure doesn’t factor in her proposed funding levels for the Idaho School For the Deaf and Blind. When that funding is calculated into her overall request, Ybarra’s request becomes 7.6 percent.

After Monday’s meeting, Headlee said it is more accurate to describe Ybarra’s request as a 7.6 percent increase, especially when comparing it to Otter’s proposed 7.9 percent increase, which incorporates funding for the deaf and blind.

However you calculate Ybarra’s proposed increase, it is important to note that she has not changed her budget recommendation.

In other Statehouse action Monday:

ISBA lobbies senators. As the Idaho School Boards Association meets in Boise this week, trustees lobbied the Senate Education Committee on some hot-button issues.

Todd Wells, a Castleford trustee, restated the ISBA’s opposition to House Joint Resolution 1, a proposed amendment to ease the constitutional ban on the use of public dollars to support religious education.

Wells said the amendment would undercut public school funding, just as the Legislature is poised to provide schools with another robust budget increase.

“We can’t afford as a state to jeopardize going backwards,” Wells said. “This dilution of education dollars could take us there.”

Supporters say HJR 1 would provide legal protection for parents and students who use state-funded scholarships to attend church-owned colleges. Critics say the amendment would pave the way to a state-funded voucher system to support private schools. Gov. Butch Otter has called the amendment unnecessary.

HJR 1 remains on hold in the House State Affairs Committee.

Pocatello school trustee Janie Gebhardt restated the ISBA’s concern with the parental rights law passed in 2015. Calling the new law an “overreach,” Gebhardt said some parents are using the law to insist on educational offerings in their neighborhood school, even if their children can attend identical programs elsewhere in the district.

The Senate has a followup parental rights bill that says districts must make a “reasonable academic accommodation” to meet parents’ requests. The language is designed to lessen the burden on schools, said Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, a sponsor. Gebhardt wasn’t convinced.

“I’m not certain that’s how some parents hear that,” she said.

Senate moves a series of bills. The ISBA presentations came after Senate Education quickly introduced eight bills, with little discussion.

Two of the bills addressed the aftermath of the Idaho Education Network broadband contract collapse. One bill would set up a Broadband Infrastructure Improvement Grant fund, or BIIG, to help schools purchase high-speed Internet. Another would create a committee that would help schools and libraries purchase broadband and apply for federal matching funds.

Both bills stem from a legislative “interim committee,” which met from July through December to study the broadband issue.

All eight bills are likely to come back to Senate committees for full hearings. They were introduced en masse, and quickly, since Monday was the final day Senate Education could introduce bills.

Broadband legal costs. The House comfortably passed a supplemental funding bill to cover court costs for the Idaho Education Network appeal.

Senate Bill 1217 would set aside $229,300 to cover the appeal. Oral arguments are scheduled for Wednesday in Idaho Supreme Court.

The bill would also transfer $176,000 in grant funds away from the network and into a public instruction fund maintained by Ybarra’s office.

Finally, the bill would return $461,800 in unused grant funds to the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which originally supplied a $6 million grant to fund the Idaho Education Network.

“The IEN no longer exists, but the bills for cleaning up that situation do still exist,” said sponsoring Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls.

Senate Bill 1217 passed 66-3 and next heads to Otter’s desk for final consideration. The bill previously cleared the Senate 34-0.

Career-technical education. The House overwhelmingly passed a bill to rename professional-technical education programs in Idaho.

Under Senate Bill 1210, the name would be changed to career-technical education, in line with changes other states have made, lawmakers said.

The bill passed 66-2. Having already cleared the Senate 32-1, the bill heads to Otter’s desk for final consideration.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News is funded by a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.

Idaho Education News staff writer Kevin Richert contributed to this report.