House Education calls for changes to teacher loan forgiveness bill

After a lengthy hearing Tuesday, a bill to forgive rural teachers’ student loan debt is headed to the House floor for amendments.

Pushed by Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, House Bill 504 would provide $3,000 per year in student loan forgiveness for up to 500 qualified teachers working in rural districts.

Rep. Sally Toone

Toone said the bill is designed to combat a familiar concern in education circles — that school districts, especially rural ones, struggle to recruit and retain quality teachers.

“The intent is to offer our teachers something (as an incentive) and make teachers feel like they are a priority,” Toone said.

The State Board of Education, State Department of Education and Rural Schools Association and several rural teachers came out in support of the bill during the hearing, while nobody opposed it.

Rep. Ryan Kerby, a New Plymouth Republican and the only former school superintendent serving on the House Education Committee, tried unsuccessfully to send the bill to the floor with a recommendation it pass.

“We have absolute crisis in our rural school districts in getting teachers,” Kerby said.

Several legislators pushed back, debating the bill vigorously for about an hour.

Reps. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, and Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, pointed out the bill does nothing for teachers who graduate college without student loan debt. Mendive said he would have preferred a bonus program that would not force the Legislature to pick and choose who was worthy.

Moon questioned how the state would know that quality educators were receiving loan forgiveness, noting the name of the bill is the “Quality Educator Loan Assistance Program,” and pointing out that some of the recipients would be first-year educators.

Ultimately, Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, led the effort to send the bill out for changes.

The amending process sidetracks the bill and may kill it. There does not appear to be consensus on any amendments. Legislators are working to wrap up their business for the year by March 23 and leadership is pushing a Monday deadline to transmit bills between the two legislative chambers.

Last year, Toone pushed for a similar loan forgiveness program, but the proposal never gained traction.

Higher education budget

Working quickly and voting unanimously, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved a $295.8 million higher education budget.

The budget represents a 3 percent increase — and exceeds Gov. Butch Otter’s $293.6 million request.

The difference: legislative budget-writers rescued several line items that didn’t make the governor’s budget, such as $1.2 million to cover benefit costs at the University of Idaho, and $800,000 for the Idaho Regional Optical Network, a high-speed network linking the state’s research universities.

JFAC and Otter agreed on a $350,000 line item to set up a degree audit system to track student progress toward graduation.

For rapidly growing Boise State University, the budget translates to a 6.3 percent increase. The University of Idaho and Lewis-Clark State College would receive increases of 0.5 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively. In the wake of declining enrollment, Idaho State University would absorb a 1.6 percent funding decrease.

The higher education budget now must pass both houses before going to Otter’s desk.

Mastery-based education

A divided House passed a bill designed to expand Idaho’s mastery-based education pilot program.

House Bill 589 would remove the cap of 20 schools allowed to participate in the program.

Otter’s K-12 task force recommended the shift to mastery in 2013.

Under mastery, students would no longer advance between grade levels or units of study based on spending a year in class and avoiding a failing grade. Instead, students would not move on before demonstrating mastery of subject matter. Students would advance at their own pace — sometimes faster, other times more slowly.

JFAC did not provide the requested $1.4 million for mastery expansion in setting the public school budgets last week. That was because HB 589 had yet to pass the House, and legislators have yet to be able to scrutinize a study or audit of the initial mastery pilot.

Those concerns cropped up again during Tuesday’s debate.

“We’re trying to expand a program before we have data coming back to us,” said Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa.

Others said they have heard enough from education groups and administrators to buy in to mastery and justify an expansion.

“In my six years (in the Legislature) this is the most positive development I’ve seen in that amount of time, as far as improved education in the state,” Mendive said.

HB 589 passed 44-25. It heads next to the Senate, where it will likely be assigned to the Senate Education Committee.

STEM diploma bill advances

House Education gave its blessing to a bill designed to create a new high school diploma recognizing students who exceed requirements in STEM disciplines.

Sen. Bob Nonini’s Senate Bill 1267aa, would create a new STEM diploma or a STEM endorsement on diplomas. In order to receive the new diploma, students would need at least eight credits in math and science and five additional credits in their choice of subjects in science, technology, engineering and math.

“The purpose of this bill is three-fold, at least,” said Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene. “It helps students with scholarships, it helps students with college admission applications and, possibly, job resumes.”

The one-page bill also contains an emergency clause, which would make it effective as soon as it is signed into law. That emergency clause would allow 2018 high school graduates to earn a STEM diploma.

SB 1267aa heads next to the House floor with a recommendation it pass. It passed the Senate 34-1 on Feb. 20.

In-state residency requirements

Working quickly, House Education advanced a bill Tuesday designed to change residency requirements for attendance at Idaho colleges and universities.

Pushed by Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, House Bill 631, makes two major changes.

The bill expands the time period from six years to eight years for an Idaho student to retain in-state residency status if they leave the state after graduating from an Idaho high school.

The second change applies to graduate school programs only. If signed into law, the bill would also grant in-state residency status for graduate programs to any student who has graduated from an Idaho college or university and lived in Idaho for at least the final 12 months of the undergraduate study.

HB 631 next heads to the House floor with a recommendation it pass.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report. 


Clark Corbin

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