Analysis: Of ISATs, child support and federal dollars

(UPDATED, 1:54 a.m. Saturday, with House action on child support bill.)

On the surface, student testing in Rexburg has nothing to do with an international child support collection treaty.

Except for one nexus, always a sensitive spot with Idahoans and their elected officials: federal funding, and the threat of withheld federal dollars.

On the testing front, the Madison School District’s original decision to opt out of Idaho’s new standardized test drew criticism from top state officials — including Gov. Butch Otter. The governor went as far as to contact Madison school officials, by phone and by mail, to lobby them to reconsider, since Idaho stood to lose $11.6 million in federal education money.

Whether that threat was real or not is subject to debate. Opponents of the new Idaho Standards Achievement Test by Smarter Balanced, and the Common Core standards aligned to the test, encouraged Madison to hold its ground and call the feds’ bluff.

State superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s staff took the threat to heart. They believed — and still believe — that 95 percent of Idaho students need to take the SBAC this spring, or the state runs the risk of losing a share of its federal Title I dollars. Since Madison accounts for 2 percent of the state’s overall enrollment, an opt-out threatened the state’s ability to hit the 95 percent threshold.

Enter Otter.

He caught Madison superintendent Geoff Thomas off guard earlier this week with a phone call urging the district to reconsider. Then he followed up Thursday with a letter to School Board chairman Kevin Howell.

Clearly, the message was received. By Thursday night, the School Board had voted to adopt the ISAT anyway.

It was a difficult decision: “Board members were in tears last night,” Thomas said Friday morning. But as trustees put it in a statement, the threat of “significant and far-reaching federal and state legal/financial sanctions” prompted them to change their mind.

With Madison dropping its opt-out plans, and with most large districts reporting only a smattering of parents opting out of the ISAT on their own, the state’s Title I dollars would appear secure.

Now to Friday afternoon at the Statehouse, and a startling House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee vote on a child support bill.

At issue is compliance with the 2007 Hague Convention on International Recovery of Child Support and Family Maintenance. When Congress passed an anti-sex trafficking law in 2014, it mandated that all 50 state legislatures pass identical bills incorporating language from the 2007 treaty.

There is a threat of a loss of federal funding. As Melissa Davlin of “Idaho Reports” wrote Thursday, the state stands to lose $16 million in child support enforcement money — and 100 staffers stand to lose their jobs. In addition to this immediate funding threat, an additional $35 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding could be in jeopardy, the Department of Health and Welfare said after Friday’s vote.

But to be sure, federal funding wasn’t the only issue at hand.

Opponents said the bill could force Idaho to honor court rulings from nations that practice Sharia law — even though committee members were assured that no signatories to the treaty actually practice Sharia law.

Meanwhile, say supporters, more is at stake than the immediate loss of federal dollars.

If Idaho vetoes the treaty language, it effectively voids the treaty language in all 50 states, said Kandee Yearsley, the Department of Health and Welfare’s child support bureau chief. Closer to home, the state would lose a host of federal child support enforcement tools: a locator service that tracks parents with active child support cases; a system that tracks parents who move from job to job; and a system that makes sure parents are current on child support before they use a passport.

In essence, she said, Idaho would be at a disadvantage in enforcing 155,000 active child support cases and $201 million in collections for kids — and not just for cases crossing interstate or international boundaries.

“If I wanted to abscond, this would be the time to do it?” asked Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene.

“That’s pretty much correct,” said Yearsley.

Nonetheless, the committee voted 9-8 to table Senate Bill 1067 — spiking a bill that had passed the Senate without a dissenting vote. Since the motion to table the bill was non-debatable, committee members said nothing about their vote, and the potential loss of funding and jobs. Later, Malek went to Twitter to bash his colleagues for dismantling Idaho’s child support collection system.

A last-ditch effort to yank the bill out of the House committee failed early Saturday morning, leaving the proposal dead for the session. But in debate on the House floor, Boise Democratic Rep. Mat Erpelding said the issue is so urgent that Otter may be forced to call a special session.

The implications of Friday’s actions are far-reaching, and not limited to the federal funding questions.

More reading: More about Friday afternoon’s child support vote from Davlin’s blog.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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