Legislative roundup, 2.16.21: Senate passes advanced opportunities expansion, and a big tax bill surfaces

A bill to extend Idaho’s rapidly growing advanced opportunities program to private school students passed the Senate Tuesday.

Senate Bill 1045 could allow private school and parochial school students to tap into a $750,000 fund that can pay for dual-credit college-level classes, Advanced Placement exams and other programs.

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett

“I think it’s time to provide some help for all high school students,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Steven Thayn, R-Emmett. “I think it’s good policy to encourage all students to succeed.”

Compared to the current advanced opportunities program in the public schools, the private school program would be much more limited. Funding would be capped at $750,000 — and the state would not dip into budget reserves to cover any additional coursework. A private school student would receive a $750 line of credit, compared to the $4,125 available to public school students. And private school students would receive no more than $75 per credit on a dual-credit course, which means students and parents might have to pick up any costs the state doesn’t cover.

But to a large extent, Tuesday’s debate was a referendum on the runaway growth of the existing advanced opportunities program. In past years, enrollment has far exceeded budgets, forcing the Legislature to use savings to make up the difference. Gov. Brad Little is seeking $29.5 million for advanced opportunities next year, a $9.5 million increase. (Little’s request does not include money for private school students.)

Several lawmakers, of both parties, said they were uneasy about putting more money into advanced opportunities. Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, noted that the state has spent $80 million on advanced opportunities since 2015, while struggling to convince high school graduates to continue their education.

“We have not moved the needle (on the) go-on rate at all, with $80 million expended,” said Crabtree, who also debated against the bill during a Senate Education Committee hearing last week.

But other Senate Education members argued for the bill again. They said it would provide help to students, while skirting the state Constitution’s ban on providing state dollars to religious schools. “I think it threads the needle,” said Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise.

With the Senate’s 28-6 vote, SB 1045 now heads to the House.

Tax overhaul bill surfaces

It took more than five weeks, but the first big tax-cutting bill of the session made its debut Tuesday.

House Revenue and Taxation Committee Chairman Steven Harris, R-Meridian, laid out the bill in committee Tuesday morning. As Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press reported, the Harris bill would do three things: It would cut income tax rates across the board, with a top rate of 6.5 percent (down from 6.925 percent); it would cut the sales tax rate from 6 percent to 5.3 percent; and it would eliminate the current $100-per-person credit for taxes on groceries.

The net effect of the bill: Over two years, the state budget would actually save $107.7 million, Russell reported — partly because Harris anticipates using state tax relief funds to offset the tax cuts. Tapping into budget surpluses and Internet sales tax collections, Little has proposed $455 million in short-term and permanent tax relief, while deferring to legislators on the details.

The outcome of the session’s tax relief debate will have short- and long-term budget implications for all state agencies — but especially K-12 and higher education, which receive about 60 percent of the state budget.

The Harris tax bill has several big-name co-sponsors, Russell reported: House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley; House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star; and Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee Chairman Jim Rice, R-Caldwell.

School closure bills head to Senate floor

A pair of bills clarifying the school closure process will head to the Senate for a final vote.

Under House Bill 67, K-12 school closure authority would fall to only a few entities: a local school board or charter school board, the governor or the State Board of Education. In other words, a local health district would not have closure authority.

Last spring, Southeast Idaho’s Bear Lake County and West Side school districts wanted to reopen, but the local health district vetoed their plans. Since then, the health districts have taken more of an advisory role. “This would just kind of put current practice into the law,” said Andy Grover, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, which supports the bill.

House Bill 68 addresses college and university closures, putting the State Board in charge of decisions for the state’s four-year schools, and leaving locally elected trustees to make the decisions for community colleges.

Some of the debate on HB 68 centered on the four-year schools and the State Board’s role. While the board has not taken a formal position on the bill, President Debbie Critchfield pointed out that the board’s appointees serve as trustees for the four-year schools.

Both bills passed the House handily last week. If they pass the Senate, they go to Little’s desk.

Kindergarten jumpstart

Senate Education endorsed another bill from Thayn Tuesday — one that would allow school districts to offer a summer program before kids start kindergarten.

Senate Bill 1075 would use the state’s spring kindergarten screener to determine eligibility. If a child is found to not be ready for kindergarten, a school would offer training for parents, and could offer a four-week summer “jumpstart” program.

Thayn’s co-sponsor, Republican Rep. Ryan Kerby, touted a similar program he established as schools superintendent in New Plymouth. The summer program helped boost kindergarten Idaho Reading Indicator scores, he said, and helped young readers pick up momentum beyond kindergarten.

“These kids are in your system,” Kerby said of the incoming kindergartners. “I see this as very different than a preschool program.”

New Plymouth used federal Title I dollars to launch its program. Under SB 1075, schools would have the green light to use state money for a similar startup.

The bill now goes to the Senate floor.

Workforce readiness diploma advances

The House Education Committee advanced a bill Tuesday that would create a new workforce readiness diploma designation for high school graduates.

Pushed by Thayn, Senate Bill 1039 would allow schools to offer the workforce readiness diploma designation to students who complete a career-technical education program and demonstrate proficiency.

Clay Long, career technical education state administrator, said the new diploma would be an optional designation schools could add to their existing diploma for students who pass a program and demonstrate their skills.

It would be similar to the STEM diploma designation for students who complete programs in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.

Rep. Julie Yamamoto, a Caldwell Republican and retired high school principal, said the new diploma designation would help students see the practical applications and workforce connections with the courses they are taking.

Senate Bill 1039 heads to the House floor with a recommendation to pass it. The Senate passed it unanimously on Feb. 8.

Vaccine resolution introduced

As the state continues to roll out a pair of federally approved coronavirus vaccines, a Canyon County lawmaker wants to ensure that all vaccinations remain optional.

Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, is pushing a resolution that would assert that no entity, including the federal government, could mandate vaccinations.

“The people of Idaho are very concerned about this issue,” Nichols said Tuesday.

Vaccinations are already voluntary in Idaho, and the state’s schools report some of the highest vaccination opt-out rates in the nation.

The House State Affairs Committee introduced Nichols’ resolution on a unanimous vote.

Idaho Education News covered Tuesday’s hearings remotely.




Kevin Richert and Clark Corbin

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