Literacy bill again on hold in committee

Over the course of a few hours Wednesday morning, the Idaho House held up two literacy bills — and at least one bill could be amended.

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Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle

It was an orchestrated move, so both bills could be considered at the same time, House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt told Idaho Education News.

Wednesday morning started with House Education voting to table, or hold, House Bill 450 until Friday. About three hours  later, on the House floor, lawmakers tabled the related House Bill 451 until Feb. 24.

There was no opposition to either move — even though both bills are rooted in recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s education task force. Otter outlined the $10.7 million literacy proposal in his State of the State address.

Last week, House Education voted 7-6 to hold House Bill 450 in committee until Thursday.

Because State Board of Education spokesman and legislative affairs officer Blake Youde won’t be available Thursday, committee members took up the bill a day early.

But during the course of a seven-minute hearing, House Education voted again to table the bill — this time through a unanimous vote. The bill is now on hold until Friday.

Vice Chairwoman Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, led action to table the bill.

“We have had some concerns raised, and feel like making some changes to this bill will make it a better bill,” VanOrden said. “If some of those concerns are addressed then we will make it stronger for our students and the citizens of Idaho.”

House Bill 451 would create reading improvement plans for K-3 students who scored below grade-level benchmarks on the state reading test. That bill sailed through the House Education Committee Feb. 12, buoyed by the support of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, Idaho Voices for Children, Idaho Business for Education, the Idaho Association of School Administrators, among other education groups.

“This is something we should have been doing a long time ago,” Ybarra said at the time.

After the second bill was tabled, DeMordaunt addressed the connection.

“That’s why (House Bill) 451 was held, because those were companion bills for sure,” DeMordaunt said. “We want those to run concurrently on the floor here.”

VanOrden served on a subcommittee of Otter’s task force, which developed the literacy recommendations. Earlier this session, she came out in support of Otter’s literacy proposal, saying it mirrors the subcommittee’s recommendations.

DeMordaunt told committee members they will have a couple of options on Friday. They could vote to introduce a new, rewritten version of House Bill 450 or send the existing bill to the House floor for amendments.

Sending a bill to the floor for amendments is sometimes a dicey prospect for supporters. Any lawmaker can propose any change for any reason — and not necessarily changes favored by bill supporters.

Meanwhile, introducing a new bill would essentially start the process over.

Concerns center on accountability measures, VanOrden told Idaho Education News after Wednesday’s vote.

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Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree

“There were some concerns about possibly not enough accountability in it, so we are looking at possibly adding a new section that will address student outcomes,” VanOrden said.

Last week, VanOrden attempted to talk lawmakers out of tabling the bill in the first place, saying a delay could jeopardize literacy funding.

House Bill 450 isn’t a budget bill, but it would direct the distribution of any funding approved by the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

Generally, members of JFAC are reluctant to fund major initiatives unless bills have completely cleared one or both of the Legislature’s chambers.

JFAC is scheduled to set the public school budget Feb. 29. After the bill was tabled Wednesday, VanOrden said she is “not as worried about” hitting budget deadlines.

DeMordaunt also said funding deadlines aren’t the only consideration.

“There is some urgency, no question about it,” DeMordaunt said. “Having said that I want to make sure we have the right piece of legislation.

“Time is not going to be our only constraint here,” he continued. “The additional constraint is making sure that we get a good piece of legislation. Not that (House Bill) 450 is bad, but I think that we can improve upon it.”

As written, House Bill 450 would provide supplemental reading instruction for students in grades K-3 who score below grade-level benchmarks on the Idaho Reading Indicator tests. For students who score at the lowest of the three levels on the reading tests, 60 hours of supplemental literacy instruction would be available. For students who score at the middle level, which is still below grade-level benchmarks, 30 hours of supplemental literacy instruction would be available.

Part of the plan includes offering optional, all-day kindergarten to students who score at the lowest level on reading tests, although school districts would be able to choose the type of supplemental literacy instruction they plan to offer.

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Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene

According to state data, an average of 36,926 K-3 students scored below grade-level benchmarks on the reading tests over the past three years and would have been eligible for supplemental literacy instruction.

“Everybody believes the interventions talked about in (House Bill) 451, as well (House Bill) 450 are good, or at least the menu of choices (is good),” DeMordaunt said. “But they are also unproven in our state.”

Last week, Rep. Ron Mendive pushed to hold the bill, saying he needed time to review reading test data broken down by the district and school level. Mendive did not discuss the data he reviewed during Wednesday’s hearing.

On Monday, Mendive expressed overall budget concerns, in an interview with Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review “It seems more and more, education is becoming a black hole for money. I just want to slow down.”

DeMordaunt tried to downplay Wednesday’s actions.

“I don’t think you should interpret this as there is not support for literacy,” DeMordaunt said. “Just the opposite, I think there is strong support.”

In other Statehouse news Wednesday:

Mortimer talks budget. Dean Mortimer assumed an unusual role Wednesday morning — testifying before JFAC.

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Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls

Mortimer, a member of JFAC, briefed budget-writers on behalf of his Senate Education Committee.

Mortimer walked JFAC through the education committee’s K-12 spending priorities, and echoed DeMordaunt, who spoke to JFAC Tuesday. Mortimer said the state needs to keep the momentum going on K-12 spending.

Senate Education’s top spending priorities are aligned with Otter and Ybarra: The lawmakers want to fund the second year of the teacher salary career ladder, and restore school district operational spending to pre-recession levels. From there, the committee was split. Career and college counseling tied with classroom technology as its third priority. Literacy and teacher professional development ranked a little lower on the list.

Nuxoll’s new Bible bill. Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll was back before a Senate committee with a new bill designed to encourage teachers to use the Bible as a reference work.

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Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood

The new version of the bill adds a sentence: “This section shall not be construed to permit religious or doctrinal instruction.”

A divided Senate State Affairs Committee voted Wednesday morning to print the new Bible bill, Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review reported.

Teachers are already allowed to use the Bible as a reference. In her original version of the bill, Nuxoll encourages the use of the Bible “to further the study of literature, comparative religion, English and foreign languages, United States and world history, comparative government, law, philosophy, ethics, astronomy, biology, geology, world geography, archaeology, music, sociology, and other topics of study where an understanding of the Bible may be useful or relevant.”

Leadership premiums. The Senate Education Committee gave its blessing to a bill designed to increase salary bonuses to educators by $50.

Senate Bill 1266 would increase the leadership premium salary bonuses teachers from $850 to $900 per year.

The salary bonuses are available to educators selected at the district level who take on leadership roles within their school, accept hard-to-fill positions, provide mentoring to younger teachers, teach dual credit courses and more.

The salary bonuses date to 2014, and were updated last year to conform to the career ladder salary law.

Backers said the bill represents an important tool to help recruit and retain quality teachers in Idaho. But Sens. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, and Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, expressed concerns about the $1 million cost to increase the bonuses by $50.

“One thing that struck me about the budget this year and some education proposals is it seems to be sprinkled in a lot different places and lot of different spots,” Den Hartog said. “For me, personally it doesn’t focus on some of the needs and some of the desired outcomes we’ve been working on.”

But Mortimer intervened, saying the bonuses are an excellent tool to reward teachers and “I believe this money gets to the end of the row, let’s say.”

The bill next heads to the Senate floor with a recommendation that it pass. In the end, only Den Hartog voted against it.

Mastery. Senate Education also advanced a bill designed to implement mastery-based education pilot programs in up to 20 Idaho school districts.

Mastery is one of Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education’s reform recommendations. The way the program is envisioned is that students would no longer advance from grade-to-grade or class-to-class after spending a semester or academic year in one class and earning a passing grade.

Instead, students would advance at their own pace, once they demonstrate they have mastered the content in question.

Senate Bill 1267 cleans up an existing state law passed last year by capping the number of participating pilot school districts or charters at 20.

The bill next heads to the Senate floor with a recommendation it pass.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.