Lawmakers vote to expand scholarship to benefit adults

(UPDATED, 5:27 p.m. Thursday, with clarification on the STEM Action Center budget.)

A divided House passed a bill Monday to expand the popular Idaho Opportunity Scholarship bill to benefit adults returning to school.

Following nearly an hour of debate, representatives voted 37-32 to pass Senate Bill 1279.

Under the bill, the State Board of Education would be allowed to direct up to 20 percent of scholarship funds to adults looking to finish a degree or certificate.

The House’s approval was never a foregone conclusion, and its passage appears to be a late-session political victory for Gov. Butch Otter. In the past two years, he tried unsuccessfully to create an adult completer’s scholarship. Otter has argued such a move was necessary to help some of the 275,000 Idaho residents who have some college credits but no degree, and to better meet state work force needs.

In his final year in office, Otter tweaked his proposal to merge the adult completer scholarship with the existing need- and merit-based Idaho Opportunity Scholarship.

Rep. Patrick McDonald

Sponsoring Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise, told legislators during his floor debate that he would have benefited from this scholarship. A career law enforcement official who went on to become a U.S. Marshal, McDonald said he did not complete his bachelor’s degree until age 56. Starting a family and serving on a task force responsible for apprehending fugitives got in the way of educational ambitions.

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McDonald also cited State Board data on the scholarship’s return on investment. Offering the scholarship to prospective students increases their college attendance rates by 9 percentage points.

“It a good investment,” McDonald said. “This is a work force issue, plain and simple. We need to fill these positions, and it’s better if we fill these positions from inside the state.”

Several legislators opposed the bill. They cited the state’s waiting list for eligible high school graduates who have applied for the Opportunity Scholarship. They said diverting some funding to adults would hurt young high school graduates who are just embarking on their postsecondary education.

Earlier this month, the House voted to increase Opportunity Scholarship funding by $3.5 million, raising the available pool of annual funding to $13.5 million.

Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, said the Opportunity Scholarship used to be a good scholarship, and he opposed expanding it to benefit adults.

“Now we’re going to water it down some more,” Harris said. “I suggest we not do this and further unroll what we’ve done in the past to make this a good scholarship for our high school students and not take from them and give to older adults.”

Other opponents questioned how the state would define adults eligible for the new scholarship.

Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, said she opposed the bill because it does not prioritize certain fields of study or degrees. For work force development needs, DeMordaunt argued the state should prioritize science, technology, engineering, math or medical degrees. She specifically said those degrees should be prioritized over art history degrees.

That comment sparked Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, to stand up and say that Idaho faces a teacher shortage, and many art history majors may go on to enter the education field and fill those vacancies.

SB 1279 next heads to Otter’s desk for final consideration, which is likely to be a formality. The bill passed the Senate 25-10 on Feb. 27.

How they voted

Republicans voting yes (26): Amador, Anderson, Bedke, Bell, Burtenshaw, Clow, Gibbs, Hartgen, Kauffman, Kerby, King, Kingsley, Loertscher, Malek, Manwaring, McDonald, Miller, Packer, Raybould, Redman, Syme, Troy, VanOrden, Wagoner, Wood, Youngblood.

Democrats voting yes (11): Chew, Erpelding, Gannon (17), Gannon (5), King, Kloc, McCrostie, Rubel, Smith, Toone, Wintrow.

Republicans voting no (32): Anderst, Barbieri, Blanksma, Boyle, Chaney, Cheatham, Collins, Crane, Dayley, DeMordaunt, Dixon, Ehardt, Gestrin, Giddings, Hanks, Harris, Holtzclaw, Luker, Mendive, Monks, Moon, Moyle, Nate, Palmer, Perry, Scott, Shepherd, Stevenson, Thompson, Vander Woude, Zito, Zollinger.

Democrats voting no (0).

Absent: Horman.

Charter administrators bill passes Senate

The Senate passed a bill designed to provide charter schools more flexibility in hiring administrators.

House Bill 566 would create an alternative charter school administrators’ certificate. If the bill becomes law, charter schools could hire an administrator who holds a bachelor’s degree and meets one of four other criteria — five years’ teaching experience five years’ experience in charter school administration; a graduate degree and five years’ administrative experience; and completion of “a nationally recognized charter school leaders fellowship.”

The bill’s floor sponsor, Meridian Republican Sen. Lori Den Hartog, said the optional bill would allow charter schools the ability to hire a candidate who meets the school’s specific needs.

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said the bill was less about innovation and more about trying to save money — since a candidate with five years’ teaching experience commands a much lower salary than a qualified administrator.

The bill passed 23-10. Voting no were Sens. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise; Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise; Jim Guthrie, R-Inkom; Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston; Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise; Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint; Abby Lee, R-Fruitland; Mark Nye, D-Pocatello; Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum; and Ward-Engelking.

HB 566 now has to go back to the House for another vote, since the House must sign off on the Senate amendments to the bill. The House-passed version of the bill was even less restrictive, and would allow charter schools to hire an administrator with only a bachelor’s degree.

STEM Action Center budget

The Senate Monday approved a 2018-19 budget for the STEM Action Center.

The budget includes $2.6 million in general fund spending. A separate, $2 million line item in the STEM Education Fund covers the state’s computer science initiative.

With the Senate’s 31-2 vote, the STEM Action Center budget now goes to Otter’s desk.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.

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