Bible-in-schools bill will get a rewrite

A bill designed to clarify the role of the Bible in public schools is headed to the Senate floor — for some rewrite.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to send Senate Bill 1342 to the floor for amendments. And the committee discussion offered a glimpse into how the bill might be reworked.

For one thing, senators said they wanted to delete references to using the Bible to teach astronomy, biology and geology. They also said they wanted to rework the bill to address not only the Bible, but other religious texts.

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Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, said she was amenable to both changes.

As currently written, SB 1342 would allow the use of the Bible as a reference work, “to further the study of literature, comparative religion, English and foreign languages, United States and world history, comparative government, law, philosophy, ethics, astronomy, biology, geology, world geography, archaeology, music, sociology, and other topics of study where an understanding of the Bible may be useful or relevant.”

Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, suggested striking the sciences from this list — as a safeguard against using the Bible to teach creationism. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against teaching creationism in public schools.

Senators also suggested references to other religious texts — prompting some public bargaining between committee members, Nuxoll and Christ Troupis, an Eagle attorney who testified in favor of SB 1342.

“I’m trying to help you here figure out a way to get this done,” said Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, the Senate’s assistant majority leader. Like Lakey, Winder is listed as a co-sponsor of SB 1342.

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Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum

The possible amendments won over Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum. For much of Friday’s hearing, Stennett posed pointed questions to the bill’s supporters — reminding supporters that teachers are already allowed to use the Bible as a reference work.

Supporters agreed — to a point. But they repeatedly said SB 1342 would provide teachers with clear direction on the use of the Bible.

“There is this vague, even fear, of it being used in the classroom,” said Steve Crane, a minister from Eagle Christian Church.

The committee’s debate sent a signal about how SB 1342 could be amended. But there are no guarantees. When a bill is opened up for amendment, any lawmaker can propose any change.

The amended bill would still have to pass the Senate before it goes to the House.

In other Statehouse action Friday:

Literacy. With almost no debate, the House voted swiftly and decisively to pass a rewritten bill to provide supplemental reading instruction to struggling young students.

House Bill 526 would require schools to offer a minimum of 60 hours of supplemental instruction per year to kindergarten through third grade students who score at the lowest of three levels on their Idaho Reading Indicator tests. For students who score at the middle level on the reading tests — still below grade-level benchmarks — schools would be required to offer a minimum of 30 hours of supplemental reading instruction annually.

School districts would choose the method of supplemental instruction, which could take the form of before-school, after-school or summer school programs. For students who score at the very lowest level on state reading tests, districts could make optional, all-day kindergarten available.

The bill is designed to enact the $10.7 million literacy proposal Gov. Butch Otter outlined in his State of the State address. Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra called for $5 million to boost literacy instruction or to rewrite and replace the Idaho Reading Indicator test, but supports Otter’s proposal as well.

House Bill 526 replaces House Bill 450, which stalled in committee.

The new bill goes beyond House Bill 450 by incorporating goal-setting timelines and specifying that supplemental instruction must take the form of “proven, effective research-based substantial intervention.”

House Bill 526 passed out of the House 62-2. Reps. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg and Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, were the only two lawmakers to vote against it. They did not explain their no votes or debate against its passage.

The bill next moves to the Senate for consideration. It is likely to start its journey in the Senate Education Committee.

Charter school contracts. The House Education Committee voted along party lines to approve a bill relaxing teacher contract language for charter schools.

Senate Bill 1248 would remove the state mandate that charter schools must use teacher contract forms approved by the superintendent of public instruction.

Supporters say this move would provide charter schools more flexibility in developing contracts. Charter schools would be able to “adapt contracts that better fit the unique needs of their students, teachers and schools,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene.

The Idaho Charter School Network, the Northwest Professional Educators association and the employees of 12 charter schools backed the bill Friday — through testimony or written letters of support.

Meanwhile, opponents say the bill could destabilize faculties by creating different classes of teachers working within the same building. Opponents also worry the change could make it difficult to recruit teachers.

“Lets us not fool ourselves,” Idaho Education Association attorney Paul Stark said. “We not talking about any innovation for education, we’re talking about employment (law).”

The bill next heads to the House floor. It previously cleared the Senate 22-13 on Monday.

Powdered alcohol. The House passed a bill that would ban the possession, sale, use and purchase of powdered alcohol, widely known as “palcohol.”

Powdered alcohol is not yet available in the United States. However, the state’s Division of Alcohol is pushing for House Bill 331, saying powdered alcohol could easily be smuggled into school cafeterias or sporting events.

With the House’s 42-24 vote, the alcohol ban now goes to the Senate.

School safety. House Education advanced a school safety bill that is designed to create partnerships between the state, local school districts and law enforcement to enhance safety.

House Bill 514 would create a new Office of School Safety and Security within the state’s division of Building Safety. The office would provide on-site security assessments and training, identify areas of vulnerabilities and provide technical assistance to local districts.

Several Idaho superintendents and administrators testified in support of the bill.

Marsing Superintendent Norm Stewart said his community does not have its own local policed department, but instead contracts with the Owyhee County Sheriff’s Office. Stewart is concerned that, in the event of a threat or emergency, law enforcement may not be able to respond in time because the county’s deputies are responsible for patrolling nearly 8,000 square-miles of territory within the county.

“It is an enormous undertaking to be everywhere they need to be at a moment’s notice, but the safety of our students and of our staff has to be one of my highest priorities,” Stewart said. “Passage of this… would give district such as mine more resources to improve safety.”

Nampa Police Captain Curt Shankel, a veteran school resource officer, also backed the bill. Shankel has worked with earlier versions of the program in the Nampa School District alongside the Idaho-based school safety consulting firm Educators Eyes.

“This endeavor has really shown me that regardless of the size of the school district or how many officers you have involved, this is a great resource,” Shankel told lawmakers.

The bill next heads to the House floor for consideration.

School autonomy. Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Wendy Horman is pushing a new bill that she said is designed to empower local school districts.

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Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls

The bill is rooted in one of the 2013 recommendations issued by Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education that calls for lawmakers to empower local districts by removing constraints and promoting autonomy.

If the bill is signed into law, up to 10 school districts would be able to request a waiver from existing rules or policy that impede districts abilities to “respond to local conditions,” Horman said.

Under the bill districts requesting a waiver would need to demonstrate continued student success and define goals district leaders intend to meet once they are given flexibility.

Horman said the bill would not allow districts to opt out of the Idaho Standards Achievement Test 2.0 by Smarter Balanced, the so-called SBAC tests.

However, one route districts could take would be to replace other tests with new one tailored to local students’ and teachers’ unique needs.

The bill is expected to return to House Education for a full hearing.

Kevin Richert

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 "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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