Committee OKs two major charter school bills

After nearly two hours of debate, the House Education Committee on Thursday advanced two companion bills designed to reform Idaho charter school laws.

House Bill 206 and House Bill 221 deal with facilities funding and the authorization and governance of charter schools, respectively. Both head to the House floor with a recommendation they pass.

House Bill 206 has taken the scenic route through the Legislature. Committee members on Tuesday already voted to send that bill to floor with a recommendation for approval. But the next day, House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, pulled the bill back to committee from the floor amidst confusion over the amending process.

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Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle

Proponents said the legislation is designed to help charter schools pay for buildings or renovations without dipping into operations money, since charter schools cannot seek bonds or levies from voters. The bill would automatically provide state funding to charter schools on a tiered scale, with an estimated cost of $1.4 million next year.

With the bill back in committee, Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, tried unsuccessfully to amend HB 206 so facilities money would only be available to charter schools that meet state academic standards and have been in existence for two years. Ward-Engelking said she wanted to protect state money from being spent on charters that weren’t up to snuff academically or would be at risk of closing.

“I believe the amendment makes the bill a little stronger and makes it more accountable and transparent,” Ward-Engelking said.

Instead, committee members voted to send the bill back to the floor as originally written.

Moments later, committee members voted along party lines to send House Bill 221 – the governance bill – to the floor with a recommendation for approval.

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Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise

The 27-page bill, introduced Tuesday, expands the number of groups and organizations that could authorize new charter schools. Under the bill, Idaho colleges, universities and some charities would be able to authorize new charter schools. Idaho school districts and the Idaho Public Charter School Commission are allowed to authorize new charter schools.

The bill makes several other governance changes:

  • It requires regular renewal of all public charter schools.
  • It creates a performance contract for charters.
  • It sets forth the process by which 501(c)3 nonprofits would become charter school authorizers.
  • If a charter school fails, its remaining assets first go to pay for employees, then to satisfy tax obligations, employee benefits, creditors and to its authorizer – if the authorizer is a school district.

Some committee members said the bill could greatly increase the number of applications for new charter schools. But Tamara Baysinger, director of the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, said she isn’t sure that will be the case.

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Rep. Kathleen Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene

“I think what we will see is not a greater number petitioning groups coming through because of it, but we will see stronger petitions,” Baysinger said.

House ‘unfreezes’ salary grid

In other action Thursday, the House approved House Bill 205 on a 66-2 vote. That bill, which heads to the Senate, seeks to unfreeze one year of education credits gained by teachers during the 2011 budget year. The freeze was reinstated after voters repealed Proposition 3 of the Students Come First laws in November. Republican Reps. Kathleen Sims of Coeur d’Alene and Shannon McMillan of Silverton were the only lawmakers to vote against the bill.

Sims and McMillan did not explain their opposition.Curiously, both voted in favor of Senate Bill 1184 in 2011 – the Students Come First law that originally sought to unfreeze the year of education credits on the teacher salary table.

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Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton