Reading test unrest flares up on the Senate floor

Minutes after the unrest over Idaho’s reading test exploded on the House floor, it flared up on the Senate floor Friday morning.

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise

The Senate passed a separate bill on the reading test, on a fairly comfortable 24-9 vote. But that only happened after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder alluded to the reading test impasse — and several senators stood to change their votes from “yes” to “no.”

The reading test issue has emerged as perhaps the biggest snag to adjourning the 2018 legislative session. On Friday, the House voted to reject state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s departmental budget — a budget that was stripped of funding for a new statewide reading test. The House vote was the latest development in a Statehouse tug-of-war between supporters of the new statewide test and legislators who want to let local school districts choose a test.

The Senate wasn’t really debating the change of a reading test Friday. Instead, House Bill 501 would simply remove the Idaho Reading Indicator from the menu of assessments that can be used as a teacher evaluation tool.

The bill sailed through the House last week on a 66-1 vote, and appeared to be moving smoothly through the Senate Friday, until it was time for a roll call vote.

Winder, R-Boise, rose to explain his vote, a prerogative on the Senate floor. He said HB 501 might appear minuscule, but it isn’t. “I think this just adds to the confusion over what’s happening with the superintendent’s budget.”

What followed was a mini-insurrection of sorts.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, the co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said she would vote no.

One by one, seven Senate Republicans rose to change their votes from “yes” to “no.” Significantly, four are members of JFAC: Fred Martin of Boise, Abby Lee of Fruitland, Carl Crabtree of Grangeville Jeff Agenbroad of Nampa.

With the Senate vote, HB 501 heads to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk.

And with the House’s vote Friday, JFAC will head back to work to rewrite Ybarra’s budget, in some form.

School threats bill passes Senate

The Senate’s in-house attorneys held court Friday during debate over a bill addressing school threats.

House Bill 665 would allow prosecutors to pursue a case involving a threat, whether it occurs on school grounds or on social media platforms. The bill also allows prosecutors to file felony charges against anyone who possesses a weapon “in the furtherance of carrying out a threat.”

Several senators, Republican and Democrat, spoke in favor of HB 665.

Sen. Todd Lakey, an attorney and a Nampa Republican, debated in favor of allowing prosecutors to pursue cases beyond school grounds. “We have to address the world that we live in.”

Sen. Jim Rice, an attorney and Caldwell Republican, said a felony charge properly addresses the “seriousness” of threats against students. “That’s what we reserve felonies for.”

Several senators — Republicans and Democrats, attorneys and non-attorneys — took turns debating in favor of the bill. Sen. Tony Potts, R-Idaho Falls, said the bill presented a way to demonstrate that legislators listened to the hundreds of students who demonstrated at the Statehouse Wednesday to make their opinions heard on school safety.

Sen. Dan Foreman, R-Moscow, expressed mixed feelings on the bill. He supported prosecuting off-campus threats, but not the felony language.

When it came time to vote, Sen. Jim Guthrie said he’d been persuaded to change his mind. “The attorneys in the room earned their keep today,” said Guthrie, R-Inkom, before casting a yes vote.

HB 665 passed 32-1, with Foreman casting the lone no vote. It now goes to Otter’s desk.

Some short work from the Senate

The Senate also rolled through several bills on education topics. Here’s a rundown of what the Senate passed, all on unanimous votes:

  • House Bill 443, which would allow schools to offer voluntary gun safety courses. A sidelight from the brief debate: Sen. Bob Nonini, a Coeur d’Alene Republican and lieutenant governor’s candidate, carried the bill on the floor; one of his primary opponents, Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, was the first senator to debate in favor of the bill.
  • House Bill 634, which would provide suicide prevention training to all public school employees.
  • House Bill 648, which would require high schools to offer elective computer science classes.
  • House Bill 620, a consensus bill to prohibit the use of public resources to support or oppose a ballot measure or candidate.
  • House Bill 626, which would require local governments to disclose the term and cost of bond issues on ballots.

All five bills head to Otter’s desk.

Some short work for the House

Working quickly — and without debate — the Idaho House passed all seven K-12 public school budgets on Friday.

Taken together, the budgets direct $1.8 billion in state spending at Idaho’s public schools and charters. That represents an increase of about $100 million over the current budget year, an increase of 5.6 percent.

The biggest investment driving new spending is more than $40 million to provide a fourth consecutive year of raises for educators.

The budgets passed the Senate in a similarly overwhelming fashion on Thursday. The budgets next head to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk for final consideration.

Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin contributed to this report. 

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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