House debates Bible-in-school bill; vote slated for Thursday

The House Education Committee abruptly cut off discussion Wednesday of a bill to promote using the Bible as a reference in public schools.

Committee members had engaged in a spirited debate of Senate Bill 1342 for more than an hour, causing the committee meeting to run late. Committee members were already more than 30 minutes late for the House’s morning floor session when Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane pulled Chairman Reed DeMordaunt out of the committee to hand him a cell phone.

A moment later, DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, returned and immediately announced the committee would recess until Thursday morning, when it will take the bill back up again.

Committee members were about to vote on a motion to send the bill to the House floor.

Nuxoll New
Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood

Sponsored by Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, the bill states: “The use of religious texts, including the Bible, is expressly permitted to be used in Idaho public schools for reference purposes to further the study of literature, comparative religion, English and foreign languages, United States and world history, comparative government, law, philosophy, ethics, world geography, archaeology, music, sociology and other topics of study where an understanding of religious texts, including the Bible, may be useful or relevant.”

Teachers are already allowed to use the Bible under existing state law, but Nuxoll said the bill is necessary to create a “safe harbor for teachers to use a Bible for reference purposes.”

Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, asked Nuxoll if she would also be in favor of teachers using the Quran.

Nuxoll said she would — if the Quran is a nonsectarian text and wasn’t used for religious purposes. Under followup questioning, Nuxoll said she views the Bible as a nonsectarian text.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines nonsectarian as “not having a sectarian character: not affiliated with or restricted to a particular religious group.”

Leo Morales, executive director of the ACLU of Idaho opposed the bill, saying it likely violates the separation of church and state.

Eagle attorney and Idaho Supreme Court candidate Christ Troupis testified in favor of the bill, as he had in a Senate State Affairs committee hearing earlier this session.

Troupis spoke to the wording of the bill — which was amended to mention “other religious texts” while intentionally referring to the Bible by name.

“We call out the Bible because it is the only one being attacked,” Troupis said.

The Bible-in-schools bill has already passed the Senate.

In other Statehouse action Wednesday:

60 percent goal. A nonbinding resolution endorsing a 6-year-old education goal generated some surprising debate on the House floor.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 134 restates the Legislature’s support for the so-called “60-percent goal.” By 2020, state leaders want 60 percent of Idaho’s 25- to 34-year-olds to hold some form of postsecondary degree or certificate.

Even though the State Board of Education adopted the goal in 2010, progress toward the 60 percent goal has stagnated. Only 40 percent of young adults now hold a degree or certificate.

Floor sponsor and House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt acknowledged that the resolution reinforces “a stretch goal.”

Said DeMordaunt, R-Eagle: “It is not going to be an easy goal to accomplish.”

Opposition came from an unlikely combination of lawmakers.

Two Democrats debated against the resolution. Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, pointed out that Idaho is still spending less on higher education than it did in 2009. “We’re not addressing that funding issue.”

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, was one of five House conservatives to oppose the resolution. “I think this is a ridiculous resolution,” she said. “This is not the proper role of government.”

The House approved the resolution, 63-7. It has already passed the Senate, so the resolution has been adopted.

Broadband access. The House comfortably passed a pair of bills designed to help school districts secure local broadband Internet access.

Pushed by Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, both bills represent the state’s effort to move past the collapse of the Idaho Education Network.

The first, Senate Bill 1333, creates the Broadband Infrastructure Investment Grant (BIIG) fund. Under the bill, qualifying school districts would be able to use BIIG funds for infrastructure projects to secure high-speed Internet connections. That bill passed 63-7.

Earlier Wednesday, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee earmarked $2.7 million for the BIIG fund.

The other bill, Senate Bill 1334, would create the Education Opportunity Resource Committee and provide assistance to school districts pursuing local broadband contracts. That bill passed 69-0.

Both bills have already cleared the Senate, so they head next to Gov. Butch Otter for final approval.

Innovation schools. The Senate Education Committee gave the go-ahead to a bill to create, and fund, a limited number of “innovation schools.”

House Bill 570 would allow innovation schools to operate outside many state laws and rules, and district guidelines, “including terms and conditions of employment.” Ten schools a year could apply for innovation status; the state would award $10,000 per school, on a first-come, first-served basis.

Nampa School District Superintendent David Peterson said the bill would “unleash” new ideas, and allow his schools to better compete with charter schools. The idea of incubating ideas in charter schools — and applying them in traditional schools facing more restrictive rules — has been a failure, he said. “We need innovative legacy schools and districts to serve as lighthouses.”

Public schools face obstacles that get in the way of innovation, said Matt Compton of the Idaho Education Association. But he said the bill, as written, would create a “free for all” that allows a wholesale disregard of existing rules.

Sen. Janie Ward-Engleking, D-Boise, agonized over the bill. The idea of innovation is “fabulous,” she said. But she had reservations about the lack of buy-in among education groups.

Ultimately, however, the entire committee voted to send the innovation bill to the Senate floor. It has already passed the House, on nearly a party-line vote.

The innovation schools program is another loose end in the K-12 budget. When JFAC meets again Friday morning, budget-writers are likely to considering funding the program.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.