Lawmakers also say they were kept in the dark over ESSA plans

Add another group to the growing list of Idahoans saying they haven’t been consulted on state plans to comply with a major federal education law. This time, state lawmakers say they’ve been left in the dark.

And when they were consulted and briefed on Idaho’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan Tuesday, those same lawmakers peppered schools chief Sherri Ybarra and her deputies with questions.

Sen. Dean Mortimer

House Education Committee Chairwoman Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, and Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, called the rare summer meeting to receive an update on Idaho’s ESSA plans.

“Since we did not have any conversation about this ESSA plan during the legislative session, the further we got into the summer, and the more we heard about it and learned about it, as chairmen of the House and Senate education committees, we realized we really weren’t up to date,” Mortimer said. “So we needed to have a briefing. We needed to be involved in the process, so that it is in our minds so we can not only give input, but anticipate how it fits in education and education goals.”

Idaho faces a Sept. 18 deadline to submit its plan to the federal government. Last week, Ybarra released a sixth draft of the plan, which remains unfinished.

The ESSA plan is important because it is essentially Idaho’s application to receive and spend $83 million in federal education funding. The plan must include a school accountability plan, plans for identifying and supporting struggling schools and plans for implementing nine federal programs.

But with federal and state deadlines looming, more education and political leaders are saying they don’t know what is in the plan.

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“Why specifically were these two committees not involved with this process before now?” House Education Committee Vice Chairman Patrick McDonald asked. “I understand by rule the Idaho Legislature was supposed to be involved.”

Rep. Patrick McDonald

McDonald, R-Boise, went on to say he appreciated Tuesday’s briefing and Ybarra’s efforts to include lawmakers’ feedback in upcoming drafts of the plan.

“But I think I could have been better prepared to understand this process before now,” McDonald continued. “What would you have done if the two chairmen had not called this joint session (today)?”

State Board of Education President Linda Clark and State Department of Education chief policy officer Duncan Robb apologized to lawmakers and said their efforts were hamstrung by changing rules, mixed messages from the feds and a shift in power as President Donald Trump and his administration took office.

“The game has changed in the middle,” Clark said.

“That uncertainty begot less early involvement than warranted,” Robb followed up.

McDonald and Mortimer weren’t the first influential Idahoans to feel excluded. Earlier this month, Idaho Education Association and Idaho School Boards Association leaders wrote a letter to Gov. Butch Otter and State Board members, writing they felt “disrespected” as a result of being excluded from helping set the plan.

That letter prompted State Board member Debbie Critchfield to scramble to set up a daylong meeting with education groups that took place Monday. She scheduled a followup meeting for July 17.

During Tuesday’s House and Senate education committee meeting, lawmakers asked dozens of detailed questions about whether the plan’s long-term goals are realistic. Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, continued to press Ybarra and her deputies about how realistic it would be to dramatically boost scores for English language learners and students with disabilities.

As written now, the plan calls for raising the percentage of ELL students scoring at “proficient” levels from 6.9 percent in 2016 to 53.5 percent in six years. Another goal calls for raising the proficiency scores for students with disabilities from 15 percent to 57.5 percent over the next six years.

Overall, the state’s goals call for “reducing the percentage of non-proficient students by half over six years.”

“A lot of that is probably impossible,” Kerby said. “What we don’t want to do is put schools in a situation where they almost certainly know they aren’t going to make it and just dismiss the whole thing.”

Ybarra told Idaho Education News that both of this week’s meetings were very valuable, and she will “make sure we go back and incorporate today’s feedback.”

“This plan really will reflect the Idaho way of doing business for education,” Ybarra said.

In the end, Mortimer said he was pleased with Tuesday’s meeting, and expects Ybarra to include lawmakers’ feedback in the next draft.

“It met our objectives very much,” Mortimer said.

Mortimer said he won’t know if a followup meeting is necessary until he sees what the next draft looks like.

 

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