JFAC approves $9.1 million literacy budget

With a handful of quick votes — and an infusion of new money into literacy programs — the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee got to its magic number Friday.

Budget-writers approved “trailer” spending bills that would boost the overall K-12 budget to $1.58 billion for 2016-17. That would add up to a $109 million more from 2015-16, or a 7.4 percent increase.

And within Statehouse circles, that 7.4 percent number was the target. While a 7.4 percent increase falls short of budget requests from Gov. Butch Otter and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra, it does match the 7.4 percent increase folded into the current year budget. Many key legislators have said they wanted to equal the 2015-16 increase.

JFAC got to that number by putting $9.1 million into Otter’s literacy initiative.

The funding would cover 30 to 60 hours of extra help for kindergarten through third-grade students who are struggling with reading. Based on recent Idaho Reading Indicator test scores, nearly 37,000 students would qualify for the extra help. If the $9.1 million goes through, districts and charters would receive $246 per eligible student.

Here again, JFAC fell short of Otter’s request; he sought $10.7 million for the literacy initiative. But budget-writers were quick to defend their plan.

Districts have been struggling to pay for literacy intervention in the past, said Sen. Dean Mortimer, an Idaho Falls Republican who also chairs the Senate Education Committee. They have had to dip into “discretionary” dollars to pay for required extra help for students who score lowest on the IRI.

And the $9.1 million supplements a suite of budget line items that pays for extra reading help, said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, a JFAC member who has been crafting the K-12 budgets. The state is spending $2.4 million on literacy intervention this year — but this program covers only 16,000 students, not the 37,000 students who would receive help under the new literacy initiative.

The trailer spending bills enjoyed bipartisan support Friday. Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, cast the lone vote against the literacy budget. A $100,000 school innovation program budget was opposed only by Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise.

With JFAC’s work done on the K-12 budget, the focus shifts to the House and Senate floors.

Wendy Horman
Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls

The budgets will be split up into several separate bills, and they all need to pass both houses before going to Otter’s desk. No K-12 spending bills have come up for a floor vote yet. They all must pass before lawmakers can wrap up the 2016 session — and legislative leaders are hoping to adjourn next week.

Horman believes there is “plenty of support” for the big pieces of the K-12 budget — including the second year of the career ladder to boost teacher pay, increasing discretionary funding for districts and launching the literacy initiative. But she expects these budgets will get some close scrutiny on the House floor.

“There’s always people who think we spend too much, and there’s always people who think we spent too little,” she said after Friday’s hearing.