Legislative roundup, 2.2.21: Senate puts virtual charter funding bill on hold

Senators put the brakes on a hurry-up proposal to provide $7.6 million to two virtual charter schools that have grown rapidly during the pandemic.

Supporters wanted the Senate to follow the House’s lead and pass House Bill 22 quickly, so the virtual schools could receive their extra money by mid-February. But with the Senate Education Committee’s decision to hold HB 22, that now appears virtually impossible. And it means the charters could be waiting on their money until May.

The Idaho Virtual Academy and Inspire Connections charter schools have seen skyrocketing enrollment since the start of the pandemic, as parents sought out new at-home learning options.

“We were very fortunate,” said Kelly Edginton, IDVA’s head of school. “We were set up for normal operations.”

But those operations drew new students in droves. Enrollment at IDVA doubled from 1,736 in 2019-20 to 3,818 this school year. And that required IDVA to fill more than 70 new full-time positions.

Normally, the state simply pays a school to cover the costs of a rapid enrollment spike. But all charter schools are under an obscure cap in state law. In an attempt to ward off rapid growth, lawmakers in 2005 capped a charter school’s annual funding increase at 30 new “support units” — a measure that roughly equals a classroom.

No one seemed to realize the cap was in place until recently, after the virtual charters accepted hundreds of new students from across the state.

Senators didn’t seem to have any qualms with covering the virtual charters’ costs. Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, noted that the state has routinely paid the Oneida School District for explosive growth of its online programs.

But committee members had qualms about the mechanics of HB 22. Some worried that lifting the cap would set up the state for other unexpected bills in future years. Some wanted to see if they could earmark federal coronavirus stimulus dollars to cover the cost, avoiding a drain on state budget reserves.

And Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, lamented the rapid pace. “I do feel a little bit of pressure that we act on this.”

The House Education Committee approved the bill a week ago and it passed the House Friday on a 68-2 vote. With the bill now on hold, it is probably impossible to get the measure signed into law in time to affect the February payments to charter schools. All schools receive a state payment in mid-February, and it’s one of the biggest payments of the academic year.

If the Legislature does act this session, the two virtual charters would receive a bump in their May payment, the last big payment of the year, said Julie Oberle, the State Department of Education’s chief financial officer for public school finance.

SDE officials push for summer health program

In the face of declining reading scores, the SDE pledged to take several steps to help at-risk readers and teachers alike.

That includes Gov. Brad Little’s $20 million summer reading program.

“The summer program will be pivotal to the strategy for improving early literacy,” Alayna Knop, the SDE’s English language arts coordinator, told the House Education Committee Tuesday.

SDE officials restated their support for the summer program a day after some House Education members questioned the need for it.

If lawmakers sign on, the state would put $20 million of surplus dollars into a six-week, half-day program to provide extra help for students who aren’t reading at grade level. The summer reading program is one piece of Little’s Building Idaho’s Future infrastructure initiative.

The SDE plans to supplement the summer reading program with a K-3 state “literacy summit,” a teacher coaching network and training in the science of reading, which would be designed to help teachers work with students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

The emphasis on training and professional development drew praise from one committee member, Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, a retired educator.

Deputy superintendent Marilyn Whitney said the summer reading program is designed to address one learning issue stemming from the pandemic.

“We know we have gaps throughout the whole K-12 spectrum,” she said.


Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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