House Education Committee begins enrollment funding rules debate

Vice Chairman Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, presides over the rules discussions for the committee Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Idaho in Session.

The House Education Committee is easing its way into an enrollment vs attendance school funding rules debate, which appears likely to go on longer than expected.

House Education took no action on the three items on its agenda Wednesday, two of which dealt with the enrollment vs attendance question.

Last month, the State Board of Education approved a temporary rule that allows school districts to use an enrollment calculation instead of an attendance-based formula for school funding purposes.

School leaders asked for the change, saying the pandemic has forced many students to shuffle between online or hybrid learning programs where they aren’t present in a building each day for attendance to be taken.

Although switching from attendance to enrollment funding may sound like splitting hairs, it’s a major decision because of the money involved. K-12 public school spending is the state’s largest general fund expense each year, proposed to eclipse $2 billion next year for the first time in Idaho history.

The enrollment and funding debate predates the pandemic by several years and leaders of some small schools have warned that changes to the funding calculations or formula could reduce their funding.

There is an extra layer of nuance this year. When the State Board approved the rule, it did so on a temporary basis. State Board members were clear at the time that they changed it to a temporary rule in order to allow the Legislature to play a role in shaping what comes next.

That means the temporary rule would expire the minute the legislative session ends (traditionally in late March or early April). If the Legislature remains silent on the funding question and doesn’t pass a law addressing it, that could force schools to go back to an attendance-based calculation at the very end of the current school year if the State Board didn’t intervene.

The technical nature of the discussion, coupled with a handful of  new members on the committee, were enough reason for legislators to slow down and ask more questions before taking action on Wednesday.

Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, asks questions during Wednesday’s meeting. Photo courtesy of Idaho in Session.

“The administrative rules are always complicated, for me anyway,” Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, said.

Initially, committee leaders were optimistic on Tuesday they would wrap up the rules debate within a couple of days. If the committee makes rapid progress it could still wrap up Thursday. But with no meeting scheduled Friday, rules discussions are likely to continue into next week.

Just three days into the young session, committee members know they have plenty of time.

“It’s not like we’re in a big rush,” said Vice Chairman Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth. “Tracie (Bent from the State Board) and I thought we would get done in two days but it might take four days. We’re gonna go until everyone has all their questions asked and they are as clear as they want to be.”

The committee will resume the rules discussion where it left off at 9 a.m. Thursday.

Editor’s note: Idaho Education News covered this meeting remotely.

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