Legislative roundup, 2.1.21: Republicans question school funding proposals

(UPDATED, 6:48 p.m. Monday to reflect additional comments from Rep. Barbara Ehardt and a statement from the Idaho Education Association)

Gov. Brad Little’s staff offered a sneak peek Monday at a proposed $20 million summer reading program designed to combat learning loss due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

But several skeptical House Education Committee Republicans expressed frustration that many schools have operated in online or hybrid learning models, as opposed to in-person instruction. Some questioned why the state would consider additional education investments.

Rep. Barbara Ehardt

“I’m a little worried about doing something when we’re actually looking (at) many of these kids are in the classroom and the reason that they are suffering is because they’re in the classroom with teachers who don’t want to be there teaching,” said Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls. “So why would we be giving money to classrooms that may contain teachers that don’t want to be there? Wouldn’t that be a poor use of the money?”

At about that point someone’s cell phone rang audibly and Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, cut Ehardt off.

“That statement about teachers that don’t want to be there can be pretty offensive to the vast majority that are eager to be there every day,” Clow said.

“That’s why I say the teachers who don’t want to be there,” Ehardt responded.

Rep. John McCrostie, a Garden City Democrat and public school teacher by profession, said every teacher he knows would provide in-person instruction if it were safe. If students aren’t safe, he said, they can’t learn.

“We’re in a global pandemic, and we’re all working as hard as we possibly can,” McCrostie said.

Several committee Republicans grilled Little’s staff about school funding in general, and the summer reading proposal specifically.

“I guess it’s pretty vague and (literacy is) a nice-feel good category to put a bunch of money (into), but I want to know how it is going to be spent and where is the accountability in all the other funds that we have already sent that direction?” asked Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley.

Greg Wilson, Little’s education liaison, and Alex Adams, administrator of the Division of Financial Management, said Little envisions a six-week, half-day summer program. The initiative would focus on Little’s core goal of improving K-3 reading skills. And money would be available for each district or charter. The $20 million would come from the projected record budget surplus that is amassing in state coffers.

Ehardt reached out to Idaho Education News on Monday afternoon saying she did not articulate her point well during the meeting and her train of thought got derailed after a phone went off and Clow interrupted her.

Ehardt told Idaho Education News her concerns have to do with virtual learning, which she opposes. Ehardt said she did not want the proposed $20 million reading program to be offered virtually because she thinks virtual learning and other disruptions are the reason students are falling behind.

Little’s staff told Ehardt their plan is for the summer reading program to be offered in-person.

Also Monday afternoon, the Idaho Education Association issued a statement calling Ehardt’s comments “inaccurate, disrespectful and out of touch.”

“Idaho teachers are extremely dedicated to their students and their profession and Rep. Ehardt insinuating otherwise is disappointing and insulting,” IEA President Layne McInelly said. “More than anything, it shows that she is extremely disconnected from the reality of public education and the classroom.”

Adams also said the state is no longer encouraging schools to freeze teacher salaries in order to meet the 5 percent budget holdbacks from the current budget year. Under Little’s proposed 2022 budget, teachers would be paid next year as if the career ladder was never frozen. That is to say, Little’s budget would send out funding for teacher pay assuming teachers moved one rung up the career ladder in 2021 and move up another rung in 2022.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will begin setting state budgets later this month.

Monday’s meeting was limited to an informal presentation, which Clow said he requested from Little’s office at the last minute on Friday. No votes or public comment were taken and no bills were considered.

Steps for Schools kicks off

The annual Steps for Schools walking challenge kicked off Monday with more than 60 legislators and elected officials participating.

Put on annually by the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health, Steps for Schools challenges elected officials to walk an average of at least 5,000 steps per day. Successful participants earn money for a school or district of their choice.

Officials who average 5,000 steps per day during February will earn $500 for schools.

Officials who average 10,000 steps will earn $1,000.

Last year, Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation For Health awarded more than $40,000 to Idaho schools through the steps challenge.

Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, State Controller Brandon Woolf and legislators representing 33 of the state’s 35 legislative districts have signed on for this year’s challenge.

 

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