Four education issues to watch during the 2020 legislative session

When the 2020 legislative session kicks off Monday, Gov. Brad Little is expected to set the tone for another year where education issues play a major role.

In conjunctions with his State of the State address at 1 p.m., Monday, Little is expected to roll out his education agenda and budget proposal.

Meanwhile, legislators have spent the off season preparing their wish lists as they meet with constituents and other policymakers.

Each legislative session is filled with so much chaos and so many surprises that it’s difficult to predict how things will play out during any given week, let alone over the course of an 80- or 90-day legislative session.

Nevertheless, Idaho Education News spoke with some of the Legislature’s movers and shakers to ask them which education issues are expected to dominate the session.

Here are four education issues to watch during the 2020 session:

Task force recommendations

Little’s education task force spent months developing five recommendations relating to early literacy and college-and-career readiness. The recommendations include increasing veteran teacher pay, expanding all-day kindergarten across Idaho, launching a new local accountability system based on growth in K-3 reading scores, increasing flexibility in the state budget and addressing social and emotional issues to support student learning.

Without going into great detail, Little has said the task force recommendations will form the basis for his budget and education policy recommendations for 2020.

“…I can tell you this: education will remain my top priority and you are guaranteed to see me push for significant investments in our teachers and literacy efforts,” Little said during the Dec. 4 Associated Taxpayers of Idaho Conference.

But with 2020 set to be a tight budget year, the task force recommendations are no slam dunk . Several Republican legislators either abstained from voting on the recommendations or opposed some of them outright.

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said legislators will have a lot of questions for Little about the recommendations, the cost of implementing them and whether data demonstrates the state can expect a return on investment.

“There are ideas around those subjects that will be brought forward by legislators who have opinions as well and we will begin the process of evaluating all of those ideas and finding common ground,” Horman said.

House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said Little may need to pick a smaller number of task force recommendations to prioritize.

“Can we do all of it? Some of it? Do we need more research? I’m looking for that direction,” Clow said. “I do not believe we can fairly address in a three-month period all of the task force recommendations.”

School funding formula

After three years of work from an interim committee, a new school funding formula was positioned as a top issue for the 2019 session. But amid a multitude of spreadsheets that came forward, lawmakers couldn’t pass a bill to redesign Idaho’s 25-year-old attendance-based funding formula.

Although the issue was left unresolved in 2019, multiple lawmakers have said they are working on new proposals for 2020.

“I still firmly believe that it is time to modernize the school funding formula in a way that is more transparent, is more flexible, is more equitable and allows local districts and charters who know their students best to make decisions about where to allocate resources,” Horman said.

Horman said multiple legislators, superintendent groups and the Idaho Freedom Foundation have all been engaged with the issue over the off season.

Senate Education Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, agreed, saying a new funding formula is among a handful of issues he hopes to address during his final legislative session.

Clow said multiple legislators have sent him funding formula spreadsheets or proposals hoping for feedback. He also said Legislative Services Office staffers have been working diligently to fix some calculation and spreadsheet issues that led to concerns in 2019.

K-12 budgets

In most years, the budget-setting process drives the session, and the education budget drives the overall budget because K-12 education is the state’s largest general fund expense. That won’t change this year. But competition for budget resources might increase.

Little has already told all state agencies, other than public schools, to cut base budgets by 2 percent for the upcoming 2020-21 budget year so that expenses and revenues are better aligned and the state can be better prepared to weather a future recession.

The real question is how much money will be left over after investing in K-12?

“It means we will need to be very focused on investing in those things we feel will produce the best outcomes for our students,” said Horman, the House vice chair of the budget-setting Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

In order to get a better handle on the budget, Horman worked with LSO staffers to track education spending and transfers over the previous five years. Since FY 2016, the state has spent $596 million in new spending on education, including transfers from the Public Education Stabilization Fund.

Horman is proud of the commitment the Legislature has made for Idaho schools, but she isn’t sure if increases in new spending is sustainable over the long term or if all past expenditures have yielded the results lawmakers anticipated.

That means budgets won’t be left on autopilot this year because a group of legislators will ask for evidence of success and return on investment before greenlighting spending programs.

Rules review/academic standards

Common core and science standards are expected to receive scrutiny again this year.

When legislators adjourned the 2019 session, they did so without taking the traditional step of reauthorizing administrative rules before leaving town. That meant the job was left to Little, who cut and reduced rules and regulations before temporarily reinstating the remaining rules that survived.

That means the 2020 Legislature has the opportunity to review all rules. Rules are important in Idaho because there are so many of them and they carry the force of law. Academic standards, immunization rules, a host of fees and Health and Welfare guidelines all were enacted via administrative rule.

That means 2020 may be open season for legislators who have concerns with Idaho’s version of Common Core State Standards or the science standards.

Clow is anticipating the rules review process will dominate the first part of the 2020 session. And he said he will give a fair hearing to House Education members with Common Core or science standards concerns.

“My biggest concern is how to address rules and for me to be a fair moderator of the meeting,” Clow said.

When it comes to Common Core, Clow wants specifics. He said he isn’t interested in debate fueled by general or ambiguous comments that the standards are bad or political. He wants to know why. And he wants legislators or concerned citizens to cite individual specific standards and say why the unique language in a given standard is helping or hurting a student’s education.

Clow wouldn’t even guess how long the rules review process would take. Instead, he offered a reminder that the rules review process has dominate weeks of hearings in past years when lawmakers only had a small slate of new rules to consider. In 2020, thousands of pages worth of rules could be put under the microscope.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for eight months anticipating this,” Clow said.

Further reading: Reporter Kevin Richert takes a closer look at four big higher education stories to watch in 2020.


Clark Corbin

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