Analysis: The career ladder becomes a ‘feel-good’ bill

Idaho Education Association Executive Director Robin Nettinga called it “a textbook illustration of consensus.”

Robin Nettinga, executive director of the Idaho Education Association
Robin Nettinga, executive director of the Idaho Education Association.

House Bill 296 — the third and overwhelmingly popular version of the career ladder legislation — is also a textbook illustration of something else. Something known, in Statehouse circles, as the “going-home bill.”

That unofficial title is bestowed upon the one bill that breaks a legislative logjam and clears the way to adjourning a session. The new career ladder bill will most likely be the bill that brings the 2015 legislative session to conclusion.

The new version of the bill has support from all the education groups that rallied behind the first version — and notably, this rewrite has the IEA on board as well. As the House Education Committee took up HB 296, with a hearing that turned quickly into a lovefest, Gov. Butch Otter, House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill issued a joint statement urging its passage.

That appears to be a done deal, if House Education’s Friday meeting is any indication. After only a few questions from committee members, the bill received the committee’s unanimous backing. Committee members spent more time praising the process than they did poking at the bill’s somewhat rewritten 34 pages of text.

“This is what I thought government was going to be like,” said Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise.

DeMordaunt VanOrden Feb 2015
House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, and Vice Chair Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree.

“I saw a vision of what could be, in today’s testimony,” committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt said after the vote. “Tonight I may sleep.”

It’s no surprise that committee members wanted to relish that feel-good moment of consensus. It was only 10 days ago that this same committee spent more than five contentious hours taking testimony on the first career ladder bill – a bill that pit education groups against the IEA, and the dozens of teachers who came from all corners of the state to voice their opposition. The next day, DeMordaunt shelved this draft, and negotiators started over.

The changes won over critics. The IEA came aboard after winning assurances that local teachers will have a voice in identifying measures used to gauge student achievement, and determining the ground rules for teacher leadership premiums. The third version of the bill would allow teachers to team up and apply for $4,000 “master teacher” awards, after Republican Rep. Ryan Kerby, superintendent of the New Plymouth School District, called the bonuses a “bitter pill” that could breed suspicion among staff and thwart collaboration in the classroom.

There was no one tipping point that turned the career ladder bill from a non-starter to a going-home bill in waiting, said DeMordaunt. “The process was very incremental.”

And this, in turn, is a key increment in wrapping up the 2015 session. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has held off writing a K-12 budget for 2015-16 — not without some impatience, but in deference to the policy-writing education committees. With a career ladder bill moving through the pipeline, JFAC would have a teacher salary figure to plug into a K-12 budget, their last unfinished piece of budget-writing.

Of course, the 2015 Legislature can’t go home without signing off on a K-12 budget that consumes nearly half of the general fund. But once a K-12 budget is in place, there’s very little else the 2015 Legislature has to do. Transportation funding, the other big behind-the-scenes debate of the session, could theoretically be an issue kicked down the proverbial road for one more year.

Even if this career ladder becomes law in the next couple of weeks, it is but a framework. Lawmakers would have to find funding, for five years. Then there’s the implementation, and the myriad details that go with it. While praising the consensus behind HB 296, Nettinga said it would be less than honest for her to say she didn’t have lingering concerns.

“The hard work is not over,” said DeMordaunt. “(But) what we saw here was commitment across the board.”

A commitment that will be put to the test, long after the 2015 legislative session is in the books.