Literacy proposal hits resistance in House committee

A literacy proposal — rooted in Gov. Butch Otter’s task force recommendations, and backed by a wide range of education groups — was sidetracked by the House Education Committee Friday.

House Bill 450 is designed as a companion to Otter’s $10.7 million literacy proposal. Based on reading assessment scores in kindergarten through third grade, the bill would provide supplemental literacy instruction for students who score below grade-level benchmarks on the Idaho Reading Indicator tests. Students who score at the lowest level on the three-point scale would receive an additional 60 hours of supplemental instruction during a school year, while students who score at the middle level would receive 30 additional hours of literacy instruction.

School districts would be able to select the type of supplemental instruction they offer, including before-school, after-school or summer reading programs. Optional all-day kindergarten would be available for students who score at the lowest level on the IRI.

The State Board of Education, the Idaho Association of School Administrators, the Idaho Rural Schools Association, Idaho Business for Education and Idaho Voices for Children all backed the bill Friday. Nobody testified against it.

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Rep. Ron Mendive

However, Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, led efforts to table the bill until Feb. 18. Earlier in the week, Mendive requested data from the State Board, breaking down student literacy scores at the school level. He said didn’t receive the data until Friday morning and didn’t have time to study more than 100 pages of documents before casting his vote.

State Board leaders and bill supporters have broken down IRI scores at the state level, computing three-year averages for committee members. But Mendive said he needed more information.

Vice Chairwoman Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, attempted to intervene and save the bill. She argued that tabling the bill could threaten its passage, because the budget-setting Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is scheduled to set the public school budget in late February.

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Rep. Julie VanOrden

Typically, budget-writers are reluctant to fund new proposals unless they first clear at least one of the Legislature’s two chambers. VanOrden worried that the bill would not have enough time to clear the committee, reach the House floor and pass the House before budget-setting begins.

“This bill was put together with a lot of thought,” VanOrden said. “And it has a ways to go (before passage).”

A divided House Education Committee voted 7-6 to side with Mendive and hold the bill.

It could still advance out of committee next week, and House leaders could move the bill up the calendar on the floor. However, Friday’s vote suggests lawmakers were not in an immediate hurry.

According to state data, an average of 36,926 kindergarten through third-grade students read below grade level benchmarks over the past three years. House Bill 450 and Otter’s $10.7 million funding proposal are two of this year’s signature proposals aimed at improving literacy rates.

In other Statehouse action Friday:

Reading improvement plans. House Education did pass another literacy-related bill, which would create student reading improvement plans.

Under House Bill 451, kindergartners through third-graders who score below grade-level benchmarks on the IRI would be given a reading improvement plan within 30 days.

VanOrden, the bill’s sponsor, said the proposal is designed to create a partnership between school administrators, teachers, librarians and parents.

The bill also calls for educators to make parents aware of the literacy support programs available to their child.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra backed the bill, telling lawmakers the plan represents a major step toward closing the reading gap by third grade.

“This is something we should have be doing a long time ago,” Ybarra said.

The libraries association, Idaho Business for Education, Idaho Voices for Children, the State Board and Idaho Association of School Administrators all backed the bill.

Mendive raised questions about this bill as well, telling fellow lawmakers North Idaho school superintendents participating in a teleconference expressed “serious concerns” that the bill would create burdensome extra work and “heartburn” for them.

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Rep. Judy Boyle

However, the IASA’s Phil Homer told committee members that school administrators can shoulder the burden and do support the bill.

Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, did was not moved by Mendive’s concerns.

“We have got make the students the priority, not the adults in the system who are worried about how they might have to do a little bit more work or whatever the problem is,” Boyle said.

In the end, the committee passed the bill on a voice vote and heads next to the House floor with a recommendation it pass.

School funding. A resolution calling for a new committee to examine the state’s funding formula is heading to the House floor.

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Rep. Wendy Horman

Members of House Education passed House Concurrent Resolution 33, which would create the committee and empower it to make funding formula recommendations to next year’s Legislature.

The state’s complex attendance-based funding formula hasn’t been changed since 1994, but lawmakers said it’s time to modernize the formula.

Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Wendy Horman, who is expected to co-chair the funding committee, said so much has changed since 1994 — including enrolments, online classes, the mobility of students and the addition of charter schools.

Committee members will be charged with suggesting changes that reflect and benefit “the modern classroom and the modern students.”

The committee passed the resolution with very little discussion, but State Board of Education officials did say the board and Otter are on board with the plan.

60 percent goal. Finally, House Education signed off on a different resolution designed to promote education attainment.

Lt. Gov. Brad Little is pushing Senate Concurrent Resolution 134, which encourages public officials to “promote policies and programs that ensure Idaho is making progress” towards the state’s flagship goal of having 60 percent of Idaho’s young adults hold a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2020.

The nonbinding resolution has so far sailed through the legislative process with Little at the helm, and House Education did not encounter opposition Friday.

But Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, asked Little how confident he was that Idaho would reach the goal of having 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds. With about 40 percent of Idaho’s young adults currently holding a degree or certificate, Kerby pointed out those percentages would need to rise by five points a year through 2020.

Little described the goal as key to meeting workforce needs, and he said focusing on career-technical education programs could help.

But it won’t be easy.

“I didn’t say this is mild, timid, weak and modest goal,” Little said. “This is a big hairy audacious goal.”

The bill is now on its way to its final legislative hurdle, the House floor.