Otter gives the Legislature an ‘A’ on education issues

Gov. Butch Otter praised the Legislature and its public education investment Monday — but declined to say how he will address late-session bills awaiting his approval or veto.

“I would once again give the Legislature an ‘A,’” said Otter, quickly adding that the Legislature still left incomplete some areas of state business.

For 80 days, legislators labored and occasionally fought amongst themselves inside the Statehouse before adjourning Wednesday. Education issues are mostly resolved, although Otter has yet to officially act on nearly $1.7 billion worth of K-12 public school budgets.

Perhaps the last major mystery of the 2017 session is the future of the grocery tax. Lawmakers voted to repeal Idaho’s grocery tax over Otter’s objections. But because the Legislature has adjourned and the repeal passed so late in the session, Otter has the final word.

Legislative rules give him until April 12 to act, his press secretary said.

So far, Otter isn’t saying what action he will take.

“You’ll find out when I sign them — or don’t,” Otter told reporters asking about bills awaiting consideration.

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When asked specifically about the grocery tax repeal, Otter replied, “No comment.”

Otter was much more forthcoming on education. He praised lawmakers for honoring their commitment to raise teacher pay for a third consecutive year under the career ladder salary law, for fully funding unexpected enrollment increases and for investing in the STEM Action Center and the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.

“In K-12, I would give them an ‘A’ on that,” Otter said.

Even with the “A,” Otter said legislators still earned “incomplete” grades on some education areas. He was frustrated the Legislature did not pass his adult-completers scholarship proposal, which would have given adults an incentive to return to school and finish their education. He called the scholarship the “low-hanging fruit” and “probably my largest disappointment” on the education front.

He was also disappointed the Legislature did not create a separate budget earmark to address school districts’ rising health care costs. Instead, lawmakers increased schools’ discretionary spending.

Otter also wished the Legislature had fully backed his plan to invest $2.5 million in training for school administrators in the area of teacher evaluations. Faced with a controversy over the validity and accuracy of evaluations, the Legislature instead invested $1 million in training.

Otter and House Speaker Scott Bedke (who did not attend Monday’s news conference) have said valid teacher evaluations serve as the accountability needed to justify the career ladder’s $250 million in teacher raises.

“I think the accountability piece we owe to the people of Idaho, and I believe the Legislature believes that,” Otter said. “How we get there — obviously, we don’t have total agreement on that right now.”

Still, Otter continues to support the career ladder and will ask the Legislature to do the same. Over the legislative offseason, Otter said he would work to continue to improve the evaluations process.

“All of those commitments were made on the basis of accountability, and it’s the accountability piece we still find ourselves falling short with,” Otter said.

More reading: Otter says another Idaho Education Network settlement is in the works.