Analysis: Fault lines in the career ladder debate

On Tuesday, the teacher career ladder bill split apart education stakeholder groups that frequently work together.

Lobbyists for the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators, the State Board of Education, Idaho Rural Schools and Idaho Business for Education took turns urging the House Education Committee to pass the $125 million plan. Rod Gramer, CEO of the business group, reminded lawmakers that the career ladder enjoyed unanimous backing from Gov. Butch Otter’s education task force. “The debate on this issue has wandered far from those heady days of unity.”

The Idaho Education Association was the lone dissenting group — with President Penni Cyr discussing her time on Otter’s task force. After some promising rhetoric about making Idaho teacher pay more competitive, she said, political leaders seem to be falling back into an old philosophy: “Let’s do as little as we can.”

This was the obvious political fault line Tuesday, as House Education finally held a formal public hearing on one of the most anticipated bills of the 2015 legislative session.

The second fault line was less obvious, but central to the legislative process. It pits the policy-making House Education Committee against the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

There’s a delicate relationship between the two committees — and it has to do with timing and substance, since the two interrelate.

It took until the 58th day of the legislative session for House Education to hold the Legislature’s first formal public hearing on the career ladder bill, proposed and presented by Otter’s staff.

That timetable puts the committee on a collision course with JFAC, which hears budget presentations and writes spending bills on an intricate schedule. Thursday, the 60th day of the legislative session, is scheduled to be JFAC’s day to write the K-12 budget.

JFAC is reluctant to fold new initiatives into its budgets — and the career ladder, which would boost the teacher salary pool by nearly $15 million in 2015-16, certainly qualifies as a new initiative. Budget-writers want to see a program pass at least the House or Senate before putting money into it.

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Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle

It would be all but impossible for the career ladder to pass the House before JFAC meets Thursday morning. It’s by no means clear that the career ladder has the support of what appears to be a skeptical House Education Committee.

As for the time crunch, neither committee chairman seems in a hurry to bend to the other’s will.

House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt opened Tuesday afternoon’s session by saying his committee would not vote on the bill at the end of the hearing. That pushes a vote back to Wednesday at the earliest.

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Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert

Asked whether he planned to adjust JFAC’s schedule, co-chair Sen. Dean Cameron wouldn’t say. No decision has been made, he said — and anyone who says otherwise hasn’t been talking to the chairs.

Now, to the substance. Where does all this leave the teacher pay issue?

In limbo, obviously.

But if the career ladder bill dies, JFAC has options. It could simply put more money into the teacher pay pool — similar to the 3 percent merit pay raises in the works for state employees.

There is precedent here; Cameron opened the 2014 session by saying he wanted teacher pay raises to mirror state employee raises. And there would be some support for such a move; for the past month, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra has been pushing for a 3 percent pay raise and a career ladder pilot plan.

State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra
State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra attending Tuesday’s hearing

A flat 3 percent raise may also be more palatable to the teachers who testified Tuesday, one after the other, and urged the committee to scrap a plan that they believe has too many strings attached. But it would do nothing to appease the other stakeholder groups that believe the career ladder represents a rare opportunity to increase teacher pay in a meaningful manner.

That isn’t just the basic division between the education groups. Ultimately, it could divide some key decisionmakers at the Statehouse.