House kills Ybarra’s office budget bill, derailing hopes for a quick end to the session

The House may have dashed hopes for adjourning the legislative session next week after it killed State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s office budget Friday.

State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra

With almost no warning, the House killed the $39.3 million budget on a 27-42 vote.

The Legislature cannot adjourn for the year without passing state budgets. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will need to reconvene next week and draft a new budget, which would then need to pass both legislative chambers and avoid Gov. Butch Otter’s veto stamp.

A simple fix may not be readily available.

It appears that deep, strong disagreements over how to handle a reading test for K-3 students stand in the way of adjournment and led to the death of Ybarra’s budget.

The reason the issue matters, aside from the obvious political implications, is that policymakers are locked into a debate over how to track and identify reading deficiencies among Idaho’s youngest, struggling readers. Generally, a reading test is a tool to gauge whether students meet grade-level reading benchmarks, and that data is used to develop strategies to intervene and support students who fell behind.

The reading issue has been bubbling under the surface for weeks. But on Friday, a volcano erupted on the House floor.

Last month, JFAC denied Ybarra’s $433,000 request to expand statewide a new, pilot version of the Idaho Reading Indicator. At the time, budget-writers said they had ordered an independent evaluation of the pilot test. But the results were not available before it came time to set the budgets. Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said she did not feel comfortable expanding the pilot statewide without studying its effectiveness and gauging whether the state is receiving a return on its investment.

At this point, several key players in, around and adjacent to the Legislature are firmly at odds over how to handle the issue. Here’s a timeline:

  • On Tuesday, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, told the legislative press corps that the issue was “unresolved at this point” and was “an important component to the governor.”
  • On Wednesday, House Education Chairwoman Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, introduced a bill to do away with a statewide reading test completely, beginning in 2019-20. Under her bill, local school districts would be able to choose and administer whatever reading test they want.
  • On Thursday, Ybarra and the State Board of Education voted unanimously to support a statewide reading test and oppose VanOrden’s bill — or any other effort to do away with a statewide reading test. Ybarra and the State Board said moving to local reading tests would rob the state of consistent, valid data meant to demonstrate whether young students are meeting grade-level benchmarks. They also said doing away with the statewide reading test could violate the state’s new accountability plan, which is attached to Idaho’s larger plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
  • VanOrden initially placed her local control reading bill on the committee’s agenda for Friday morning, but then pulled the bill off the agenda. That didn’t kill the bill, however, and it could resurface at any point.

Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, was the only legislator to debate against passing Ybarra’s budget. Kerby stood briefly and said the plan lawmakers set in motion last year was to launch a pilot reading test this year, then expand it into a statewide test this year. Kerby said it was his understanding that Idaho law required that change.

Ybarra wasn’t fazed at the death of her budget.

“I am not surprised by this vote, and I’m pleased Rep. Ryan Kerby highlighted concerns that expansion of IRI funding wasn’t in the budget. I have been hearing from districts across the state concerned that the pilot will not be expanded. The pilot districts love the assessment because it gives them far more data on student performance than the old test. This vote allows us to continue to work on getting the new IRI expanded to all districts.”

Immediately after the vote, veteran JFAC co-chair Maxine Bell told Idaho Education News that she didn’t know where the Legislature goes from here.

Bell, R-Jerome, said legislators were odds over the issue. They weren’t in agreement Thursday, Thursday night or Friday, she said — suggesting an easy solution may not be at hand.

Nor will it be quick.

A general rule of thumb is that it takes two weeks to draft budget bills and get them through both houses. However, lawmakers often suspend rules and may be able to place a new budget on a fast track if they develop a palatable solution.

“It delays us getting home,” said Horman, who called Friday’s vote “a complete surprise.”

Horman said misinformation about the reading tests may be fueling the fire. She said budget-writers sought the independent evaluation after hearing anecdotal evidence calling the test into question. Some school superintendents are concerned about whether kindergartners can navigate the technology in the pilot test and manipulate a computer mouse.

Horman also said legislators are cautious about large, multiyear contracts.

“This state has had a problem before with single-vendor statewide contracts,” Horman said. “Been there, done that and we don’t need to go back there.”

Istation, the state’s pilot reading test vendor, issued a statement Friday pointing out that it won a five-year contract in 2017. That contract calls for expanding the pilot test and implementing it statewide between 2018 and 2022.

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