Advanced opportunities bill advances

The House Education Committee Thursday gave its green light to a bill designed to clarify advanced opportunities programs for Idaho students.

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Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett

Pushed by Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, House Bill 458 would move four existing advanced opportunities programs under one section of code and provide $4,125 that seventh- through 12th-grade students could use for advanced course work.

Students would be eligible to use the funding for dual credit courses, overload courses and college credit-bearing or professional certification examinations.

Thayn said his bill is designed to simplify program administration, clarify that the four advanced opportunities programs can be used together and to encourage students to take more advanced courseloads.

“Though in my mind they fit together, evidently in the minds of lots other people they didn’t,” Thayn said.

Vallivue High School counselor Connie Benke was one of several people who testified in support of the bill.

“The logistics of managing the project is a bit overwhelming,” Benke said. “There are four different components (now) so combining them into one will be a great help.”

Melba School District Superintendent Andy Grover said the bill would help more students earn college credits while in high school — thus helping the state move closer to its goal of having 60 percent of the state’s young adults hold a college degree or certificate by 2020.

Nobody spoke against the bill, and the committee passed it on a voice vote.

“We ought be yelling this from the rooftops — this is such an amazing opportunity here,” said Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle. “It is so clear now how students in high school can get their associate’s degree with the state picking up the tab.”

The bill next heads to the House floor with a recommendation it passes.

In other Statehouse action Thursday:

College scholarships. House Education sent a college scholarship bill related to advanced opportunities to the House floor, but for amendments.

Several lawmakers complained that House Bill 477 would not allow students to use  scholarships at religious schools such as Brigham Young University-Idaho or Northwest Nazarene University.

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Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth

New Plymouth Republican Rep. Ryan Kerby, the retired superintendent of his local school district, is pushing the bill. Kerby said his bill would provide $2,000 worth of scholarships for high school students who earn 10 college credits, and $4,000 worth of scholarships for high school students who earn 20 college credits.

For students who earn an associate’s degree while still in high school, a full college scholarship would be available.

Students would need to earn a separate merit-based scholarship to claim the proposed state scholarship.

As written, the bill would allow students to use the proposed scholarship only at one of Idaho’s public universities or colleges.

During debate over the bill, discussions of the so-called Blaine Amendment cropped up on a couple of occasions. Earlier this session, Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, pushed a proposed constitutional amendment seeking to ease the Blaine Amendment, a prohibition on appropriating state or government funds to be used at church-owned schools. Supporters say the amendment is designed to address scholarships for religious colleges; it has not yet received a hearing in committee.

Kerby said he would support changing his bill to include church-owned colleges. But once a bill is taken up for amendments, any lawmaker may propose any amendment, and is not obligated to follow the committee’s recommendations.

School trustee elections. The Senate Education Committee took testimony — and then took no action — on a bill to reschedule school trustee elections.

Sen. Jim Rice’s Senate Bill 1307 would move school board elections from May in odd-numbered calendar years to the November general elections — held in even-numbered calendar years.

Rice, R-Caldwell, said his objective is to boost voter turnout in trustee elections.

Testimony on the bill was mixed.

Karen Echeverria of the Idaho School Boards Association spoke against the bill — saying nonpartisan races for volunteer school trustee positions should not be placed on the same ballot with presidential elections and statewide partisan election.

Ada County chief deputy clerk Phil McGrane said SB 1307 would create a logistical logjam for elections officials, since school trustees run in small district “zones” that aren’t used in any other election. Counties could probably work with SB 1307 if the Legislature also passes a companion bill, Senate Bill 1308, which would do away with trustee zones and elect trustees across an entire school district.

SB 1308 was also on Thursday afternoon’s committee agenda, but wasn’t even discussed.

Ultimately, both bills wound up caught in a time crunch.

After two lengthy presentations — and extended debate on an adult college scholarship bill — the committee had only a few minutes left to discuss SB 1307. Senators returned to the floor at 5 p.m., two hours after the start of the committee hearing, for a late-afternoon session.

When 5 p.m. came and went, the committee adjourned, taking no action on SB 1307, SB 1308 and a House-passed bill establishing a computer science initiative. “Our agenda got shot to pieces,” said Senate Education Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, as the meeting ended.

Both election bills will come up at a future committee hearing, Mortimer said.

Sick leave. Without any debate, the Idaho House passed a bill to allow educators to transfer their accrued sick leave to a similar new job.

House Bill 452 would cover employees who leave a school district, state agency, public four-year institution or the Idaho Digital Learning Academy.

The House voted 60-9 to pass the bill; the nine Republican lawmakers who voted against the bill did not debate against it. The bill next heads to the Senate.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.