Senate Education floats a counteroffer in standards stalemate

The academic standards debate could stretch well past the 2020 legislative session.

The Senate Education Committee introduced a proposal to create a legislative “interim committee” to study standards through the rest of 2020, and perhaps recommend new standards to the 2021 Legislature.

“It is time for us to see if we can get all of our education community on the same page,” said Senate Education Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls.

Monday’s move came less than a week after the House Education Committee voted to reject all English language arts, math and science standards — a far-reaching and perhaps unprecedented vote. House Education’s decision throws into doubt the standards that serve as an educational roadmap for Idaho’s 300,000 public school students.

And senators said House Education’s vote could threaten some $260 million in federal education funding. That’s because federal education law requires states to establish some form of academic standards, and then test their students against the standards.

Before Senate Education voted unanimously to introduce Mortimer’s proposal, both Mortimer and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, spoke of the specter of lost federal dollars. The feds fund a variety of state education programs, including special education and Title I, a program that provides extra support for high-poverty schools. After Monday’s committee meeting, Mortimer says he has discussed the matter with state superintendent Sherri Ybarra, who suggested Idaho’s federal funding could be in jeopardy.

Ybarra did not immediately respond to an interview request from Idaho Education News.

The Legislature entered its sixth week of the session Monday — and the standards stalemate has been one of the defining issues of the year. Senate Education has not yet taken up the English, math and science standards. The committee might consider the standards later this week or next week, Mortimer said, but no date has been set.

But during Monday’s committee meeting, Mortimer made his preferences clear, and they don’t align with the House decision to dump standards.

“If we don’t have them, we really don’t have something to measure,” he said. “We don’t have something to teach to.”

Afterwards, Mortimer said he would vote to keep the standards on the books — at least while an interim committee reviews them — and he said he hopes his committee will follow suit. And there is some recent precedent in this regard.

Under the Legislature’s convoluted process for reviewing agency rules, such as academic standards, it only takes one legislative committee to approve a rule. In other words, if Senate Education votes to keep the standards in place, that would override House Education’s decision. That’s exactly what occurred in 2018, when Senate Education voted to approve science standards in full, over House objections.

But in order to create a committee to take a deep dive into standards, the two houses will have to agree to that idea. And given years of festering tension between the House and the Senate over rules, that’s hardly a done deal.

Monday’s Senate Education vote represents only the first step in the legislative process, and it was a perfunctory vote. With little discussion Monday, the committee introduced nine pieces of legislation, including Mortimer’s interim committee proposal. All nine proposals — covering topics ranging from rewriting the K-12 school funding formula to recruiting rural teachers — would have to come back to Senate Education for a public hearing.

Mortimer said he had no deal in place with the House on his proposal — but he noted that the idea of an interim committee originated in the House.

Committee Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, wrote up a similar proposal, but never presented it to House Education for a vote. Clow was lukewarm to Mortimer’s proposal, and referenced the larger House-Senate tensions over rules.

“A lot of it, I think, depends on what can and will happen with the rules in the Senate,” Clow told Idaho Education News Monday afternoon. “If they carte blanche approve all rules, rules I think our committee is not going to have much appetite to go along with an interim committee.”

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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