Senate Education will get a makeover

The Senate Education Committee will look a lot different when the 2015 Legislature convenes — with a new chairperson and at least two other new members.

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Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls

And the committee’s vice chairman, Idaho Falls Republican Dean Mortimer, says he is interested in succeeding Chairman John Goedde, one of six incumbent lawmakers to lose in the May 20 GOP primary.

“(It’s) not a job for the lighthearted,” Mortimer said of the chairperson’s spot. “(But) I think there’s an opportunity to make a significant difference in the educational community.”

Committee chairs drive much of the agenda at the Statehouse. They have almost unfettered authority to decide which bills get a hearing — and which bills get scuttled. Goedde was one of the Legislature’s most high-profile committee chairs. He was a vocal backer of Propositions 1, 2 and 3, overturned by voters in November 2012; a member of Gov. Butch Otter’s education reform task force; and a steadfast advocate of the Idaho Core Standards.

Goedde’s ouster was one of the biggest upsets of the primary. The 14-year senator — who enjoyed almost a 10-to-1 advantage in fundraising — lost to Mary Souza, a longtime Coeur d’Alene city government critic who had run unsuccessfully for mayor just six months earlier.

Mortimer said he was surprised by Goedde’s loss, but he already has a few ideas about how he would head Senate Education.

A member of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, and a strong advocate of restoring school districts’ operational budgets and boosting professional-technical spending, Mortimer says he would like to see the committee take a more active role in budget decisions. He said he would be cautious about pushing for any changes in Idaho Core Standards, but he would take a long look at the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test, the lengthy computer exam aligned to the math and English language arts standards.

Unopposed in the November general election, after running unopposed in the GOP primary, Mortimer would appear to have a clear path to the chairmanship. He is completing his third Senate term, and has seniority over the other remaining Republicans on the committee.

“(He’s) certainly more than prepared,” said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. It would be an “aberration” for Mortimer to get passed over, Davis said Thursday — but the decision rests with Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg.

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Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg

Hill isn’t tipping his hand. “It would really be highly inappropriate for me at this point to even speculate,” he said.

Hill named Mortimer to replace Goedde on a working group ironing out details of a teacher salary ladder and tiered licensure system, one of the most complicated recommendations from the Otter task force. The idea is to have some continuity on the issue heading into the 2015 session, said Hill — and the appointment does not signal what may happen with the Senate Education chair.

Mortimer, in turn, was replaced on a second working group: one that is fleshing out a task force recommendation to shift to a mastery-based model for student advancement. Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, is working on this group.

In addition to Goedde, two other Senate Education members will not be back in 2015. Meridian Republican Russ Fulcher is leaving the Legislature after his unsuccessful run for governor, and New Plymouth Republican Monty Pearce lost in the primary. Pearce’s loss opens up another committee chair; he had headed the Senate Resources and Environment Committee.

Compared to the turbulence in Senate Education, the House Education Committee appears stable — at least for now. All 16 committee members are seeking re-election, and the five Republicans who faced a contested primary won last week. The closest call involved Vice Chairman Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, who trailed in early returns before eking out an 83-vote win.

Read more: Could the Senate Education shakeup open the door to a second look at Common Core? A Voices guest opinion.