Literacy proposals unveiled; science standards killed

The House Education Committee kicked off the week Monday by introducing two bills aimed at improving literacy rates among Idaho’s youngest students.

Both bills are designed to align with and enact Gov. Butch Otter’s $10.7 million literacy proposal, outlined in last month’s State of the State address.

Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, pushed the first bill, which would create reading improvement plans for kindergarten through third-grade students who perform below grade-level benchmarks on the state reading assessment, the Idaho Reading Indicator. Principals and teachers would issue reading improvement plans to students with deficient reading scores within 30 days.

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Rep. Julie VanOrden

VanOrden’s bill also calls for notifying parents of the reading improvement plan and describing the supplemental instruction services and interventions available to students. She said her goal was to create a proactive partnership between parents and educators.

“Lots of parents (now) have to wait until parent-teacher conferences come along to learn that their students are low readers and what they can do to help them,” VanOrden said.

The State Board of Education pushed the second bill, a technical bill to direct funding for supplemental education materials for struggling readers. The bill calls for increasing supplemental reading support for K-3 students who score at the lowest levels on the IRI to a minimum of 60 hours per school year, up from a minimum of 40.

Additionally, the bill calls for offering at least 30 hours of supplemental instruction for K-3 students who score at the IRI’s middle level, which is also below grade level.

School district leaders would be able to choose the supplemental literacy education program or instructional materials they would use, as long as programs align with Idaho’s comprehensive literacy plan. As previously announced, all-day kindergarten would be an option school leaders and parents could choose.

State Board spokesman Blake Youde said that an average of 36,926 kindergartners through third-graders scored below IRI grade level benchmarks over the past three school years. Based on that number, Otter’s $10.7 million literacy recommendation would provide an additional $290 per student.

Improving student literacy rates was one of the 20 recommendations issued by Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education issued in 2013.

Both bills are expected to return to the committee for a full hearing.

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Debbie Critchfield

VanOrden and State Board member Debbie Critchfield also issued a literacy update based on findings from a task force subcommittee. They identified a five-year literacy plan estimated to cost $21.5 million. Their plan also calls for updating the state’s comprehensive literacy plan every five years.

Critchfield said the goal is for 100 percent of third-graders to read at grade level.

This fall, 36.1 percent Idaho’s third graders scored below IRI grade-level benchmarks. This equates to 8,270 students.

“That is going to take some time and, clearly, money,” Critchfield told lawmakers.

In other Statehouse action Monday:

Science standards killed. With no actual discussion of the standards themselves, the Senate Education Committee rejected a controversial lengthy rewrite of the state’s science and humanities standards.

The committee discussion — such as it was — discussed the process. Tim Corder, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s legislative liaison, asked senators to reject the new standards to allow Idahoans to comment on the standards.

The standards include several references to the age of the earth, the creation of the universe and climate change.

“That may have been what motivated a lot of people to take issue with them,” Corder said after a brief committee hearing on the standards.

As Idaho Education News reported last week, the State Board adopted the rule on Aug. 13 and accepted public comments through Oct. 28. Corder stopped short of saying the State Board violated the letter of state sunshine law, but suggested Idahoans should have the chance to discuss the changes on the front end.

“Sometimes it is the spirit (of the law) and not just the letter that counts,” Corder told senators.

One thing is clear, however. With Senate Education’s unanimous vote Monday afternoon, the new standards are dead for 2016. House Education rejected the rewrite last week — so that means the old standards stay on the books until at least the 2017 legislative session.

School funding formula. House Education introduced a concurrent resolution creating a committee to undertake an in-depth review of the state’s education funding formula.

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Rep. Wendy Horman

Rep. Wendy Horman, an Idaho Falls Republican who is expected to serve as a committee co-chair, pushed for the resolution’s introduction.

After serving on a task force subcommittee, Horman said it became increasingly clear that it is time to scrutinize Idaho’s funding formula for the first time in more than two decades.

“Our student demographics have changed significantly since 1994,” Horman said.

Horman’s resolution calls for members of the Legislative Council to appoint lawmakers, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra and another State Board member to the committee.

The committee’s co-chairs would then be able to appoint non-lawmakers as well.

Committee members will be charged with undertaking a thorough study of the state’s funding formula and issuing recommendations for changes to next year’s Legislature.

School board recalls. The Senate State Affairs Committee introduced a bill pertaining to school board members facing recall efforts.

Betsy Z. Russell of the Spokesman-Review reported that Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, is pushing a bill to prevent trustees from resigning and appointing like-minded replacements if a quorum of board members faces recalls.

Russell reports that Winder’s bill was inspired by a news article he read about the West Ada School District, where petitioners are moving forward with efforts to recall four of the board’s five members.

Several committee members were skeptical of the bill, with Russell quoting Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Tereton, as saying, “So, Mr. Chairman, I wonder if we’re doing something here that we shouldn’t be messing with.”

Russell’s full report is available online.

STEM. It took a little bit of debate, but the House passed a bill that would extend Idaho’s school tax credit law to cover donations to the STEM Action Center.

House Bill 357 is designed to encourage donations to the center, a clearinghouse to support the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math. However, it is also expected to reduce state tax collections by about $25,000 per year.

The bill passed 66-4 — with no votes coming from Republicans Vito Barbieri of Dalton Gardens, Gayle Batt of Wilder, Shannon McMillian of Silverton and Heather Scott of Blanchard. Scott also debated against the bill, which now goes to the Senate.

Later Monday, the Senate Education Committee introduced a bill that would create a STEM Education Fund.

Otter has requested putting $10 million into the fund — as a long-term endowment to cover public-private STEM partnerships.

Legislative budget-writers would still need to decide how much money to put into the fund. This bill, which will come back to Senate Education for a full hearing, would simply create the fund.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.