Senate panel slams brakes on mastery program

Idaho’s mastery-based education movement flunked out in a Senate committee Tuesday.

The Senate Education Committee killed a bill designed to build on Idaho’s 20-school mastery pilot program, launched in 2016-17. Mastery expansion was a priority for Gov. Butch Otter and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra; both wanted to double spending on the mastery program.

But Senate Education had a host of unanswered questions about the pilot.

“It just feels a little too soon for me,” said Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, who led the charge to hold House Bill 589 in committee, effectively killing the bill for the session.

The mastery-based model has been a talking point in Idaho education policy since 2013, when Otter’s K-12 task force recommended the approach. Proponents say the approach tailors education to the individual student — who advances through the school system based on command of subject matter, not on seat time at a particular grade level. As lawmakers continue to look at rewriting the state’s 24-year-old school funding formula, they are looking toward a new enrollment-based model that would align with mastery-based learning.

The state launched the pilot program with a $1.4 million-a-year line item — and HB 589 would have cut out language referring to the mastery “incubator” program.

One sticking point, for senators, was language in HB 589 to create a 12-member advisory commission. The panel would have included legislators, representatives from education agencies and lobbying groups, among others. Some senators suggested the committee wasn’t needed, while Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said parents and students were underrepresented.

Senators also felt like they didn’t have enough data about the mastery pilots — and how the schedule affects student learning. Duncan Robb, Ybarra’s policy adviser, discussed some early results from pilot schools. The initial test scores are encouraging, and discipline problems have decreased.

But that wasn’t enough to sway senators, who killed the bill on a nearly unanimous vote. The mastery bill had support from only one committee member, Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett.

HB 589 had passed a divided House last week, on a 44-25 vote.

Senate Education’s vote also closes the door on the Otter-Ybarra request to put an additional $1.4 million into mastery in 2018-19.

Scholarship bill passes House committee

A sharply divided House Education Committee voted Tuesday to advance a bill to expand a popular scholarship to benefit adults returning to school.

Although Senate Bill 1279 is headed to the House floor with a recommendation it passes, the bill is taking the scenic route to get there. The committee spent more than 90 minutes picking apart Otter’s proposal to combine the adult completers scholarship with the existing Idaho Opportunity Scholarship.

Then Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, made an unsuccessful motion to hold the bill in committee — just until Friday, and not to kill it off. The motion failed on a tie vote.

Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise, secured the votes to send the bill to the floor, but only after Chairwoman Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, took the unusual step of voting to pass the bill after first voting to hold it.

SB 1279 would allow the State Board of Education to award up to 20 percent of the available scholarship funds to adults returning to school to complete a certificate or college degree. Otter has previously pushed a separate, independent adult completers scholarship, but the proposal failed in each of the two previous legislative sessions.

Marilyn Whitney

Marilyn Whitney, Otter’s deputy chief of staff and education liaison, said incentivizing Idahoans who have some college credit but no degree is essential to reaching the state’s signature education goal of having 60 percent of young adults hold a certificate or degree.

Just 42 percent of Idaho’s young adults hold a certificate or degree.

“As you know, this goal is about ensuring Idaho employers have a skilled and ready work force,” Whitney said.

State Board Executive Director Matt Freeman said about 275,000 Idahoans over the age of 25 have earned some college credits, but no degree.

“This will enable them to leverage the work they’ve already done and earn a credential,” Freeman said. “In turn, these Idahoans will help address the skills gap, which is currently a chokepoint in the talent pipeline in our economy.”

The Idaho Freedom Foundation opposed the bill, while the State Board, Boise State University, Idaho State University, the College of Western Idaho, the American Association of University Women and Idaho Department of Labor Director Melinda Smyser supported it.

Fred Birnbaum of the Freedom Foundation said combining the two scholarships could make less money available to recent high school graduates while rewarding students who dropped out of college.

“It’s a subsidy for certain students who drop out,” he said. “Meanwhile, students who work through college get no break or subsidy, potentially paying more for school.”

Birnbaum, who said he earned two degrees himself, also wondered why Idaho would emphasize and incentivize a college education when Idaho employers could instead just import talent.

Reps. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, and Ehardt led the effort to oppose the bill. Moon pressed for details about the eligibility qualifications, which have yet to be developed. At one point, Moon suggested that, for her, scholarship recipients should earn a 4.0 grade point average to demonstrate they are making acceptable progress through school. She also said adults who did not complete school should be more responsible by now.

Under State Board rules, students must maintain at least a 3.0 GPA in order to qualify for the scholarship.

Several people testified Tuesday that they had to put their education on hold, because they started a family or because tuition costs were too high.

Julie Custer of the AAUW said she had to stop college after four semesters because she could not afford tuition on her minimum-wage job. Thirty years later, she said she finally completed her degree after receiving financial assistance from her employer.

“Had a scholarship like this been available, I might have been able to complete my degree years earlier and advance in my career,” Custer said.

SB 1279 passed the Senate 25-10 on Feb. 27.

Community college budget

Idaho’s four community colleges are in line to receive $46.1 million in state funding.

The community college budget — approved Tuesday by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee — translates to a $6.7 million increase. But much of the new money, slightly more than $5 million, would go to the brand-new College of Eastern Idaho, which Bonneville County voters approved in May.

The JFAC budget exceeds Otter’s proposal for a $6 million increase in community college spending.

Idaho’s other three community colleges are in line for a budget increase, but the amounts vary widely. The fast-growing CWI would receive a 10.9 percent increase, North Idaho College would receive a 1.5 percent increase and the College of Southern Idaho would receive a 1.1 percent increase.

The community college budget has to pass both houses before it can go to Otter’s desk.

High school graduation requirements

The House overwhelmingly passed a bill to eliminate the requirement for high school seniors to take math classes.

Thayn’s Senate Bill 1266 is a one-page bill that simply deletes an existing section of law requiring high school seniors to take two semesters of math during their senior year.

Students would still need to complete six total semesters of math in high school. The bill simply allows them to take those classes whenever they want.

Moon, the bill’s House sponsor, said the unintended consequence of requiring seniors to take math is that many students skip math altogether when they are juniors — when they are gearing up to take college entrance exams such as the SAT.

Moon said she hopes the bill will encourage more students to take math as juniors, allowing them the option to take even more math as seniors.

Nobody debated for or against the bill Tuesday, and it passed the House 65-1. Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, cast the lone opposing vote.

SB 1266 passed the Senate 34-0 on Feb 14. It next heads to Otter’s desk.

Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin contributed to this report.

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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