Education organizations prepare for legislative session

The Idaho Association of School Administrators anticipates several legislative “hot topics” in the upcoming session.

IASA executive director Andy Grover discussed the potential legislative moves in front of a crowd of at least 100 people at the organization’s annual conference Wednesday. Representatives from the Idaho School Boards Association and State Board of Education also attended.

The IASA has not voted on its legislative direction yet, but will take Wednesday’s feedback into account when doing so later this year.

Here’s what the IASA has on its radar.

Insurance coverage

Despite a funding increase designed to help schools move employees onto the state insurance plan, many districts still can’t afford to make the switch. Compared to many school plans, the state plan offers improved benefits at lower premiums.

Gov. Brad Little signed a bill in March allocating an extra $105 million to cover the annual costs of enrolling school employees in the state plan. The bill also included a one-time boost of $75.5 million to cover up-front costs.

But schools still need $80 million to $85 million in continuous funds to make the switch, according to the IASA.

“Currently, it’s still out of the grasp for a lot of our districts,” said Grover.

Meanwhile, some of the state’s discretionary fund is earmarked for insurance: about $13,300 per classroom unit. If districts don’t use some or all of this money for insurance, they can redirect the rest to other programs. But there are concerns that the Legislature could restrict this flexibility in 2023.

Labor and wages

Increasing wages for classified staff — non-teaching employees who don’t require state department certification — is a chief concern.

From paraprofessionals to bus drivers to cafeteria workers, Grover says classified staff are integral to schools. But just weeks before the start of the school year, districts are still facing hiring shortages, including a lack of classified employees.

Most districts pay at least $12 an hour for classified staff, an increase from previous years. But Grover says that wage isn’t competitive, considering districts in neighboring states pay at least $15 an hour.

To help fund classified staff, districts received a 7% increase last year, compared to around 2% in previous years. But the historic boost translated into a raise of around 40 cents per hour for staff members in many districts, according to ISBA policy and government affairs director Quinn Perry.

“You’d have to be very deep in the sand to not know it’s a problem,” Perry said.

Federal funding and regulations

The IASA also voiced concerns that lawmakers might push to reject federal funding entirely, in exchange for exemptions from federal law. Though the organization is unsure if efforts will progress, they advised administrators to prepare to have that conversation with lawmakers.

The push likely comes in light of the Biden administration’s proposed Title IX changes, Perry said. The changes would consider discrimination on the basis of sex to include gender identity and sexual orientation.

“I do think that debate is likely coming,” said Perry. “I think that’s something to be prepared for … and I just hope people are cognizant that it does not excuse you from the very many regulations that you would still have to abide by.”

Rejecting federal funding isn’t something new to the Legislature, as one attendee pointed out. In March 2021, lawmakers rejected a bill that would have allowed the state department to access nearly $6 million in federal grant money for pre-K. Some legislators were concerned that the money would fund social justice indoctrination in preschools.

The state collects about $250 million a year in federal education money — not counting the surge of one-time federal dollars received during the pandemic.

One-time funding

Between COVID emergency relief funds and Idaho’s budget surplus, districts have received an influx in one-time funding. But school leaders are hesitant to use the money for long-term projects, because the funding is unreliable.

Grover led a brainstorming session Wednesday, inviting administrators to discuss how to use one-time funds. Their ideas included:

  • Covering startup costs for software licensing.
  • Purchasing curriculum, from hardbound books to online curriculum. According to one administrator, the cost for a mid-sized district to adopt new curriculum is over $1 million.
  • Purchasing new buses or other modes of student transportation.
  • Hiring a consultant to do a full facilities workup. The Office of Performance Evaluations released a study in January, estimating Idaho schools are at least $1 billion behind in school facilities, but there is generally a lack of data about facilities, Perry said.
  • Establishing incentives to attract and retain teachers.
  • Creating a list of allowable expenses to give districts more freedom. Blackfoot, as district superintendent Brian Kress pointed out, has different needs than larger districts.

The IASA also anticipates a downturn in many districts after the federal emergency relief funds run out.

ESAs and vouchers

Education savings account and tuition voucher legislation remains a top concern for the IASA.

In March, the House Education Committee narrowly rejected a bill that would have allowed families to spend public dollars on private school tuition and fees through an ESA. In doing so, the bill would have redirected state funding out of public schools.

Voucher bills stem from a growing demand for school choice in Idaho, largely from concerns about curriculum and accountability in public schools.

But many at Wednesday’s meeting argued that vouchers would create a greater lack of accountability, since private schools do not adhere to the same public records requirements as public schools.

Quality Education Act

Grover briefly covered the Quality Education Act, a voter initiative set to appear on the ballot this November.

The Reclaim Idaho measure would generate $323 million for K-12 schools by raising taxes on corporations and Idaho’s top income-earners. But it could reverse this year’s income tax cuts and cost taxpayers $573 million instead.

None of the organizations present at Wednesday’s meeting have taken a stance on the initiative, but likely will in coming months.

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Reporter Sadie Dittenber focuses on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley. You can follow Sadie on Twitter @sadiedittenber and send her news tips at [email protected].

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