Legislative roundup, 2.18.21: New bill would revive Strong Families grants

A new bill out of the Statehouse would relaunch a popular grant program that used federal stimulus funds to help families pay for the cost of education technology or online learning for K-12 students.

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, and Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, teamed up to push a new bill Thursday morning that would create the Strong Students Grant and Strong Students Scholarship program.

“Part one is essentially formalizing the incredibly successful program Strong Families, Strong Students that we saw in the previous year, which allowed any student in the state of Idaho, public or nonpublic, to receive grants,” Horman said.

If this new bill is passed into law, it would do two main things:

  • Create new Strong Students grants capped at $500 using the same income thresholds as the original grant program, which offered grants up to $1,500 per student or $3,500 per family.
  • Create scholarships for nonpublic school students who previously attended public schools. The scholarships would be equal to 90 percent of Idaho’s average, per-student spending amount from the previous year, Horman said.

The issue of state scholarships for students who don’t attend public schools has gained prominence following a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. Last summer, the high court ruled a Montana state scholarship program must be made available for students in private schools, including religious schools.

Idaho is one of about three dozen states that prohibit using public funding for religious entities or schools. The Supreme Court ruling appears to open the door for discussions of education scholarships or savings accounts.

Horman and Den Hartog are asking for $30 million in one-time federal funds to pay for the grants. They are also asking for $10 million in state funding — $5 million to administer the grant program and another $5 million for the scholarships benefiting nonpublic school students.

They estimated the state could provide about 800 scholarships under the program.

Last year, the state selected 18,465 families from 26,512 applications to receive the original grants, which were paid for with federal CARES Act money.

Introducing the new bill clears the way for it to return to House Education for a full public hearing.

Senate Education takes up virtual charter issue, again

For the fifth time, the Senate Education Committee took up the issue of two virtual charter schools that have taken on thousands of additional students during the pandemic.

And on Thursday, the committee agreed to send the bill to the Senate floor for amendments.

The amendments are still in the works, said Senate Education Committee Chairman Steven Thayn, R-Emmett. But the idea is to come up with funding to cover the schools’ added costs, and leave it to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to decide whether to use state dollars or federal coronavirus relief dollars to pay the bill.

The schools, Idaho Virtual Academy and Inspire Connections, could need $6.5 million to $7.7 million to cover their costs of added staffing.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Senate Education voted to hold the virtual charter funding plan, House Bill 22, leaving the proposal in limbo. But on Thursday, Sen. Carl Crabtree made a motion to send the bill to the floor for amendment, noting the bill’s tortured path through committee.

“This bill is the gift that keeps on giving,” said Crabtree, R-Grangeville.

If the Senate amends HB 22 and passes it, the bill would have to go to the House for another vote. The House passed the bill in its original form, but House members would have to agree to any Senate amendments.

SDE accepting public comment on proposed academic standards

The State Department of Education will accept public comment on a draft of proposed new academic standards through June 1.

At the behest of the 2020 Legislature, the state is rewriting academic standards in math, English language arts and science.

Review committees and working groups wrote the drafts last year.

They briefed the State Board of Education and the Legislature earlier this year.

Science standards, in particular, have proven to be a source of Statehouse controversy and division. The House Education Committee has held divided standards hearings that delve into topics such as global warming, industry and the age and creation of the universe during four of the past five sessions.

In 2018, the House Education Committee voted to remove references to climate change and a reference to human impact on the environment before the Senate Education Committee approved a full, unedited slate of science standards.

In 2020 House Education voted to repeal all academic standards before again being overruled.

Several legislators were involved with the working groups and review committees over the past year. And the experience may lead to some taking a lighter touch. During a Feb. 4 joint meeting between the House and Senate education committees, Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth and Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls, talked about the benefits supporting content played when paired with the science standards.

That’s a different message than the one legislators conveyed in a March 2020 letter calling for the state to rewrite all the standards and ditch the supporting content.

The SDE has placed the proposed drafts of standards online for public comment. The drafts allow the public to see changes compared to the existing standards. The public call also review the supporting content that was paired with the 2018 science standards.

There are separate online comment forms for math, science and English language arts.

Mentorship bill heads to Senate floor

Senate Education signed on to a bill to create a postsecondary mentoring network.

The Idaho Promise program would pair students with volunteer mentors, to help students navigate the financial aid and college application process.

Sponsors say their goal is to slow the so-called “summer melt.” Each year, some 4,000 high school graduates decide against continuing their education in the fall. But the sponsors also hope the mentors will help students stay on track — finishing an apprenticeship or receiving a professional certificate or associate’s degree.

“There’s no point in having someone start something they do not successfully finish,” said Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 1109.

The program would carry a projected annual pricetag of $380,500, but sponsors hope grants and corporate donations will cover the costs.

SB 1109 now heads to the Senate floor for a vote. A similar bill narrowly passed the Senate in 2020, but did not get a hearing in the House.

Preschool grant update

Legislative budget-writers gave the go-ahead for a federally funded preschool grant.

Working under the State Board of Education, early education advocates will use the three-year grant to work with teachers, schools and community and business groups on early learning options.

The feds are funding nearly $6 million for early learning program development, and $450,000 for Idaho Public Television to develop public service announcements, literacy training materials and a smartphone app.

While the money is coming from the federal government, the State Board still needs the approval to spend it. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee signed on Thursday, on identical 16-2 votes; Reps. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, and Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, voted no.

The spending bill still needs to pass both houses.

Idaho Education News covered Thursday’s hearings remotely.

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