Legislative roundup, 1.21.21: Charter funding bill surfaces

House Eduction Committee Chairman Lance Clow, center, speaks in favor of a new charter school funding bill Thursday. Screenshot courtesy of Idaho In Session.

The House Education Committee introduced its first bill of the year Thursday, a proposal that is designed to remove a cap on funding increases for charter schools experiencing rapid growth.

The issue affects two virtual charter schools that enrolled large increases of new students over the last year amid the coronavirus pandemic. Charter schools added thousands this school year while statewide enrollment dropped. 

“Because of the COVID situation and vast shifts in student bodies around the state… there was also a dramatic shift from traditional in-class schools to the virtual academies,” House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said.

Clow is co-sponsoring the bill and wants to fast-track it to prevent Idaho Virtual Academy and Idaho Connections Academy from not receiving funding for all their new students.

The new bill would remove a section of existing law that prevents public charter schools from receiving an increase of more than 30 support units compared to the year before.

Support units are basically the equivalent of a classroom and are a big factor in determining school funding.

The cap on support units only applies to charter schools, not traditional public school districts, and it was put in place in a 2005 law, Clow said.

“This is the only time a charter school has ever exceeded the limit since the law was passed,” Clow said.

Suzanne Budge, a lobbyist who represents charter schools, brought the bill forward. She said if the cap is not removed it would prevent the schools from receiving funding for 5,600 students. That would translate to about $7.6 million that those schools wouldn’t receive, Budge said.

Thursday’s hearing was only introductory. A full public hearing is scheduled for Monday.

The House Education Committee will accept remote testimony on the bill during Monday’s hearing via Zoom. But anybody wishing to testify, whether in-person or virtually, must sign up in advance on the Legislature’s website in order to secure a spot.

This session, as the coronavirus continues to spread, legislative leaders are pushing new technology and protocols that are designed to let more people watch and participate in the session remotely.

The House Education Committee will not meet Friday.

Senate Education OKs enrollment rule

With little debate, the Senate Education Committee approved a rules change that will allow schools some short-term flexibility in counting students.

The rule change, approved unanimously, will allow school officials to count their students based on full- or part-time enrollment.

Normally, schools are expected to track student based on full- or part-time attendance, using that number for funding purposes. But school officials have pushed for a change during the pandemic, since many students are shuttling into online or hybrid learning models and are sometimes not even attending brick-and-mortar schools.

It’s a temporary rule change. Next year, schools would go back to using attendance for funding purposes, said Tracie Bent, the State Board of Education’s chief planning and policy officer.

Senate Education approved the rule with some editing, removing references to online, distance or blended learning. Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, said he wanted to avoid the perception that the state wanted to move to a virtual learning emphasis after the pandemic.

Thursday’s vote comes after the Senate and House education committees have worked sporadically on this rule. The House Education Committee has discussed the proposal at three separate meetings, delaying a vote until Feb. 3. Senate Education also spent an hour vetting the rule Monday, taking no action.

Generally, agency rules go into effect with one committee’s approval. But House Education will still have the chance to agree on the Senate’s deletions, and could approve the rule in full, overriding the Senate.

Meanwhile, Senate Education moved quickly to approve three other items: Senate Bill 1006, which would consolidate sections of the state’s Literacy Achievement and Accountability Act; Senate Bill 1007, a clarification of the career ladder teacher salary law;  and a rule to clarify vocational rehabilitation program requirements.

Senate Education will not meet Friday.

Editor’s note: Idaho Education News covered Thursday’s meetings remotely. 

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