Reading test impasse shows signs of breaking

(UPDATED, 4:56 p.m., to reflect JFAC’s meeting, now scheduled for Tuesday.)

As the 11th week of the 2018 legislative session opened Monday, there are signs that the backlash over a new statewide reading test is fading.

On Monday morning, House Education Committee Chairwoman Julie VanOrden said her bill to give local school districts the freedom to choose their own reading test is dead for the session.

Minutes later, Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer said he now expects the Legislature to extend the statewide reading test pilot for another year, and adjourn. Like VanOrden, Mortimer has favored a local approach to the reading test.

Legislators returned to the Statehouse Monday for the first time since the House killed Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra’s office budget Friday. The sudden and unexpected 27-42 vote centered on the reading test; the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee had removed a $433,000 line item to launch a new statewide test, and ordered Ybarra to stop work on a new contract for the test.

Friday’s House vote had brought a long-simmering feud over the reading test to the surface. For weeks, state officials and key legislators have been at loggerheads over the question of how to assess reading skills — with many key players supporting a new statewide test, and several key legislators favoring a local approach.

The reading test impasse is one of the last unresolved issues of the 2018 legislative session. Lawmakers have said they hope to adjourn the 2018 session this week.

The reading test is important because it is the centerpiece of a multimillion dollar statewide initiative to improve early reading skills. Nearly one half of kindergartners show up for fall classes without grade-level reading skills — and the state is earmarking about $11 million per year to provide extra help for at-risk readers. That money is distributed based on historic scores on the reading test.

There were no big developments at the Statehouse Monday morning — at least publicly.

Rep. Julie VanOrden

JFAC did not meet Monday. However, the Legislature cannot adjourn for the year without approving all agency budgets, including Ybarra’s departmental budget. That process begins in JFAC, which will have to rewrite the departmental budget.

House Education met briefly Monday morning, but took no action other than to approve minutes from previous meetings. After the committee adjourned Monday, VanOrden told Idaho Education News that House Bill 693, her late-session reading intervention bill, will not advance any further this year.

“It’s dead for this year,” said VanOrden, R-Pingree.

VanOrden also plans for House Education to meet just one more time this year, on Tuesday. At that time, VanOrden does not expect the committee to consider any bills or introduce any new legislation.

VanOrden said Rep. Wendy Horman and Mortimer are working on proposals to draft and pass a new budget for Ybarra. The two Idaho Falls Republicans sit on JFAC.

VanOrden said her reading test bill doesn’t need to be part of that debate, or this year’s resolution. “At this point, it’s just a budget solution that just needs to happen.”

The focus now turns to JFAC.

The committee will meet Tuesday morning to discuss a new version of Ybarra’s departmental budget.

As a practical matter, the House’s rare vote to reject a budget slows down the legislative process. It’s likely to take several days for a new departmental budget to work its way through JFAC and the two houses.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.

 

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