Education news roundup: Tuesday, March 11

Scholarship donations. The House approved a bill to offer tax credits to people and businesses that donate to private school scholarships.

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Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa

House Bill 507 passed 46-21, and heads to the Senate.

Sponsoring Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, said his bill is intended to help low-income families who are interested in sending their children to private schools.

“This bill is about empowering parents to make the choices they feel are best for their children,” he said.

But opponents say the bill actually provides a special tax break for businesses and wealthy individuals. Opponents also said the credits would reduce the revenue available for public schools, by reducing tax revenue.

“This bill is going to cost us at a time when we are trying to make up many years of deficits in education,” said Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise.

Under the bill, donors to eligible private school scholarship granting organizations would be entitled to an income tax credit equaling 50 percent of the donation. Those credits would carry forward for up to three years, but the amount could never be claimed as a refund.

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Neither public schools nor children attending public schools would benefit from the donations or scholarships.

A similar bill calling for a 100 percent tax credit died in a Senate committee last year.

School loans. The House passed a bill to create a new loan program to benefit small rural schools.

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Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow

House Bill 578 would allow districts with fewer than 2,000 students to borrow up to $200,000 to address safety or energy efficiency needs. It passed with a close 38-31 vote.

Sponsoring Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said her bill is intended to help small districts address modest safety of efficiency needs if they have not been able to pass a bond or levy.  She cited a Priest River school as an example, saying officials would like to upgrade old windows at a cost of $150,000. The district doesn’t have the money up front, Ringo said, but school leaders believe the savings would pay for the work in three years if they could get a little help funding the project.

Her loan program would tap into the Public School Facilities Cooperative Funding program, which was designed to provide state loans to districts that have failed to pass a bond and must address imminent safety concerns.

The program has been used once and the fund has a balance of about $16 million, although the Salmon School District may soon receive $3.6 million for repairs.

Under Ringo’s bill, no more than $1 million per year would be available for small loans.

“It seems unfortunate to have a situation where a district doesn’t have the means to make repairs that would be a significant money savings in the long run, and that is what this bill attempts to address,” Ringo said.

Opponents said the program would allow school districts to borrow money without voter approval. Some opponents feared that the small loans could deplete the fund and hinder the original purpose: addressing imminent safety concerns.

“At least when you’re dealing with your voters, you have got to be honest with them (about taking on debt), I think,” said Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis.

If a district is unable to repay the loan within five years, the state could collect the balance by reducing operations funding to the district.

The bill next moves to the Senate, where it is expected to land in the Senate Education Committee.

Data security. The Senate unanimously passed a bill designed to ensure student data security.

Under the bill, the state and school districts would have a clear list of what constitutes a student record — and what information they cannot keep as a student record. School districts and individuals who leak student data would be subject to a fine of up to $50,000.

The student data issue surfaced in recent months — with critics saying the multistate Common Core standards placed sensitive personal information at risk. Supporters of the Idaho Core Standards agreed that the state should safeguard student data. “This bill has been a long time coming,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, the bill’s sponsor.

Senate Bill 1372 now heads to the House.

‘Use it or lose it’ flexibility. A bill to repeal — gradually — a school funding flexibility plan is headed to the governor’s desk.

House Bill 557 would wean school districts from so-called “use it or lose it” funding flexibility, over the course of several years. The law, passed during the Recession, allowed districts to fill 9.5 percent fewer teaching jobs than the state funded. The “use it or lose it law” allowed cash-strapped districts to use this money for other purposes.

The bill passed 35-0, and has  already passed the House without dissent.

State payments. The House Education Committee endorsed changes to the way the state pays school districts.

Under Senate Bill 1323, the state would decrease payments to school districts from five to four. The annual payment total would remain unchanged.

State Department of Education Deputy Chief of Staff Jason Hancock said the state bases payments during the first half of the school year on estimates from previous year’s attendance and staffing levels.

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Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle

The state now pays districts in August, October, November, February and May. The new bill would eliminate the October payment, splitting this payment between the normal August and February payments.

If the bill passes, districts would receive 50 percent of the funding allocation in August, with 20 percent more arriving in November and February and the final 10 percent coming in May.

Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, stressed state officials would need to be transparent with the new payment system.

“Make sure the school district understand the new schedule here,” DeMordaunt told Hancock. “I don’t want another Nampa situation where they think the money they are getting is actually different that what it is.”

The bill heads to the House floor. It passed the Senate unanimously last month.

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