Legislative roundup, 2.24.21: Bill would allow parents to pull students out of schools not offering in-person learning

A new bill introduced Wednesday by the House Education Committee would allow parents to pull their students out of schools not offering full-time, in-person instruction and receive a payment from the state.

Codi Galloway

Sponsoring Rep. Codi Galloway, R-Boise, said the new bill encourages schools to open up full-time for in-person learning.

If they don’t reopen, parents could pull their students out and receive a pro-rated payment they could use to reimburse eligible education expenses, Galloway said.

The bill defines full-time as four days per week, Galloway said, noting many small districts run a four-day schedule.

“This legislation does not look back, it looks forward,” Galloway said. “And it is intended to get kids back in school.”

“If full-time, in-person instruction is not possible, it returns the funding to the parents to ensure appropriate instruction happens for all of our kids,” Galloway said.

Galloway did not specify how the pro-rated payments would work and the bill was not immediately available to review on the Legislature’s website Wednesday, likely due to some late edits.

Galloway, a freshman lawmaker bringing her first education bill, said she brought the bill to support West Ada School District parents and students who want to be back for in-person learning full-time.

Galloway said the bill would take effect April 1 if passed into law. West Ada’s school board is moving forward with bringing back middle and high school students full-time (with the exception of remote Mondays) but no earlier than March 30.

Galloway took the unusual step of amending three sections of her bill on the fly when it was up for introduction to correct information that she said she just learned about the previous day. She also declined to discuss the financial impact of the bill until it receives a full hearing.

Several legislators from both political parties said they have questions.

“I want you to be prepared when we have a full hearing to answer some pretty serious questions about the funding,” said Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls.

Marshall worried that a school district could be penalized financially even if none of its students were withdrawn by their parents because overall public school funding could be reduced.

Legislators did not accept any public testimony on the bill Wednesday. Introducing the bill clears the way for it to return to House Education for a full hearing.

This is at least the fourth major bill on school opening legislators have considered. The House passed House Bill 67 and House Bill 68, which define and limit who has authority to close and reopen schools.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra has also pushed a rewritten in-person learning plan via House Bill 175, which will be up for discussion again Thursday.

Ehardt returns with new sex education bill

For the third year in a row, Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, is pushing a sex education bill that she said is based around parental rights.

“It is our parents’ rights to be involved and to have an explicit say in their education,” Ehardt said.

Ehardt said the new bill is a rewritten and improved version of a failed 2019 bill that would have required parents to specifically opt their children into any sex education instruction with permission slips.

Ehardt said the new version of the bill relies on a World Health Organization definition of sexuality. Ehardt said parents would not need to opt their children into sex education if teachers limited the instruction “within the narrowly defined confines” in existing state law about the reproductive system, anatomy and physiology. Any instruction that goes beyond that, Ehardt said, parents would need to opt their children in.

Wednesday’s hearing was only introductory, and Ehardt did not get into many details of how her bill would work if passed into law.

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

In 2019, Ehardt pushed a controversial bill that would have required parents to opt their children into sex education courses. It passed the House but the Senate Education Committee killed it.

A year ago, Ehardt introduced a second sex ed bill but it never advanced out of committee.

As things stand today, parents are already allowed to opt their children out of any sex education courses.

Grant and scholarship program bill advances

The House Education Committee advanced a bill Thursday that is designed to revive a popular Strong Families Strong Students grant program and establish scholarships for students who don’t attend public schools.

Supporters say the bill gives extra resources to students and families who need extra help.

But opponents said it is a voucher bill masquerading as something else.

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, and Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, sponsored House Bill 215.

If passed into law, it would do two main things:

  • Create new Strong Students grants using $30 million in one-time federal stimulus funds to help families pay for the cost education technology or online learning. The grants would be capped at $500 for families based on income thresholds. The original grants last year were capped at $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.

“Simply put, this bill is about trusting parents to make the personalized decisions about their children’s education,” Horman said. “It is extra resources to students who need extra help.”

The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry (IACI) business lobby and several parents showed up to testify in support of the bill.

But several school superintendents, the Idaho Education Association and the Idaho School Boards Association opposed the bill or asked for amendments, saying they don’t want state tax dollars being sent to private or religious schools because they worry that would hurt public schools.

“I’ll be clear; House Bill 215 is not the same as Strong Families, it is fundamentally different,” Nez Perce School District Superintendent Shawn Tiegs said. “It is a voucher program wrapped inside a grant program modeled after Strong Families, but able to be utilized for private school tuition and it serves as a Trojan horse for a larger, more concerning voucher program.”

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 court ruled a Montana state scholarship program must be available to students in private schools and religious schools.

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

Horman said the bill is not a voucher bill because the scholarships would go to the families, not directly from the state to religious schools.

The House Education Committee voted 11-4 to advance the bill after a lengthy public hearing.

House Bill 215 heads next to the House floor with a recommendation it passes.

Senate approves kindergarten ‘jumpstart’ program

A bill to create a four-week summer program for at-risk readers cleared the Senate Wednesday.

Senate Bill 1075 would create the program for incoming kindergartners who score below kindergarten-ready on a screener, offered each spring. In order for the kindergartner to qualify for the summer program, parents must also take part in an evening training session.

The bill’s sponsor, Senate Education Committee Chairman Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, pitched the “jumpstart” program as an alternative to a full-blown public pre-kindergarten system, which would cost the state too much money, and cut parents out of the process.

The bill passed on a 32-1 vote, but senators raised some reservations. Sen. Regina Bayer, R-Meridian, said she was uneasy about pulling young children out of the home too early. Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, said the jumpstart program is valuable, but lamented that local districts will have to scrape together supplemental property tax levies to pay for it. “I wish we would go ahead and fund this.”

SB 1075 now heads to the House.

Student executive session bill passes Senate

The Senate also approved a bill allowing school boards to complete student discipline process in closed executive session.

Currently, trustees meet behind closed doors to discuss discipline issues, but must take action in open session. That student is never named in open session, but supporters of Senate Bill 1043 maintain that the student’s privacy is at risk — especially in a rural district. They say parents and classmates can often identify the student in question.

SB 1043 passed 23-10 with no debate. But Sen. Jim Guthrie, a McCammon Republican and former school trustee, explained his no vote on the Senate floor, saying school boards should still make their final discipline decisions in open session.

SB 1043 now goes to the House.

A new anti-extra credit bill emerges

A rewritten bill to crack down on offering students extra credit for voting made its debut Wednesday.

The objective of the bill is unchanged from its original version. Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, is seeking to prohibit college and university professors from offering students extra credit for voting, or for trying to influence the vote for or against a candidate or ballot measure.

The House State Affairs Committee voted to introduce the rewritten bill, which could come back for a full hearing at a later date.

Idaho Education News covered Wednesday’s hearings remotely.

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