Marathon literacy debate dominates House floor session

The Idaho House engaged in a protracted floor debate Wednesday before comfortably passing a literacy bills that had been held up for a week.

House Bill 451 would require educators to notify parents once they identify a deficiency in kindergarten through third graders’ literacy skills — such as scoring below grade-level benchmarks on Idaho Reading Indicator tests. The bill would also require teachers, principals and other school employees to develop a personalized reading improvement plan for that student and to notify parents about the improvement plan and reading remediation available to the student.

VanOrden New
Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree

The bill doesn’t call for any new spending and enjoyed widespread support among education groups when it was in committee.

Nevertheless, lawmakers peppered sponsoring Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, with an array of questions. Lawmakers raised concerns about mandated kindergarten (which the bill does not do) and alleged the bill cuts parent involvement out of the education process.

“I’m not arguing at all this is not a good idea to have our kids read,” said Mountain Home Republican Rep. Pete Nielsen, who took two turns debating against the bill.

Nielsen argued that the bill excludes parents too much. He said the bill “contains an element of force” because it would “force” parents to use a reading improvement plan developed by the child’s teacher.

Nielsen New
Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home

VanOrden responded by saying that the bill seeks to increase the partnerships between parents and schools. Parents would not be forced to do anything they found uncomfortable.

The debate over literacy was so long that it dominated the entire one-hour morning floor session and prevented representatives from considering any other bills.

Other lawmakers also voiced concerns.

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, worried students would be “reclassified” as another type of student or as a student with disabilities if they received a reading improvement plan.

VanOrden assured her that would not be the case.

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, questioned VanOrden’s assertion that the new bill would not expend any new funding. Ultimately, he dropped his questions.

Nate New
Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg

And Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, questioned whether it was even appropriate to insert the bill’s into law, if school districts could address literacy on a voluntary basis.

After several rounds of questions, supporters jumped into the debate, calling the bill a necessary tool to help reach more than 36,000 Idaho students from kindergarten to third grade who read below grade level.

“No factor affects the educational success of child as much as a parent,” said House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle. “Anything we can do to engage the parent in the education process is a good thing, and that is all this piece of legislation does.”

After the dust finally settled, the bill passed 67-1, with Nielsen casting the only dissenting vote. It next heads to the Senate for consideration.

A related literacy bill, House Bill 526, passed out of House Education Tuesday and is awaiting action on the House floor. That bill, which would direct new funding, would provide supplemental reading instruction for K-3 students who score below grade-level literacy benchmarks. House Bill 526 is the rewritten version of a different literacy bill that was held up earlier this month before it was scrapped.

In other Statehouse action Wednesday:

Budget preview. Legislative budget-writers will take a first pass at writing a K-12 budget Monday, but don’t expect a finished product.

Horman New
Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls

This first version of the budget will likely omit several items, Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, told reporters Wednesday afternoon. As a result, she said, the number that comes out of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Monday will likely be less than the bottom-line spending plan.

Horman, a member of JFAC, is expected to take a lead role in writing the K-12 budget bills.

She predicted that JFAC will have to write “trailer” spending bills to address several unresolved issues — including literacy. Another trailer bills could address leadership premiums for teachers and school staff. A third could set aside money to help schools absorb the cost of enrollment increases during the academic year.

But she said JFAC should resolve one big spending issue on Monday — funding the second year of the teacher career ladder.

Check back at Idaho Education News Thursday for an in-depth look ahead to Monday’s JFAC meeting.

School parental rights. A slightly rewritten version of a parental rights bill has overcome some stakeholder concerns — and received unanimous support from the Senate Education Committee.

Sponsored by Sens. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, Senate Bill 1293 asserts that “a parent or guardian is the primary person responsible for the education of the student, and the state is in a secondary and supportive role to the parent or guardian.” That language is identical to a parental rights bill Souza and Den Hartog proposed in 2015.

This time around, the bill gives school administrators a little bit of leeway; they need only make “its best effort to enable a parent or guardian to exercise their rights without substantial impact to staff and resources.” This “reasonable accommodation” language satisfied Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association.

“We are comfortable with this piece of legislation,” Echeverria said after Wednesday’s committee hearing.

In November, ISBA members passed a resolution opposing a second, more far-reaching parental rights law which did pass in 2015. The resolution also called for a clarification in parental rights language. The 2015 law has caused some problems for school administrators, Echeverria said, and this year’s bill would give administrators some latitude.

With the committee’s unanimous support, SB 1293 now heads to the Senate floor.

Funding formula review. The Senate Education Committee endorsed a plan to assemble a legislative committee to study Idaho’s school funding formula.

The “interim committee” would meet between the 2016 and 2017 legislative sessions to scrutinize the complicated statewide funding mechanism.

The formula dates back to 1994 and does not reflect several big changes in Idaho education — from online learning to charter schools.

The House has already endorsed the idea of the interim committee, so House Concurrent Resolution 33 faces only one more legislative hurdle: a vote on the Senate floor.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.