State Board endorses full-day kindergarten

The State Board of Education wants Idaho to fund full-day kindergarten.

On Wednesday, the board gave the idea its unanimous support, the first step in a process that could play out through the 2022 legislative session.

The State Board wants to free up state dollars for full-day kindergarten programs. Right now, the state funds only a half day of kindergarten — with districts and charters picking up the difference through a “piecemeal” funding approach, State Board member Linda Clark said during Wednesday’s meeting.

Some districts use voter-approved supplemental property taxes to cover full-day kindergarten costs, other schools use federal Title I dollars and others charge student tuition. Despite the funding patchwork, the vast majority of districts and charters offer some form of full-day kindergarten. According to Idaho Education News research from April, more than 95 percent of Idaho’s 21,140 kindergartners had access to full-day programs .

“The state is catching up with what districts have been doing, because of parental expectations,” State Board member Debbie Critchfield said.

The State Board is also catching up with legislators. Earlier this year, two Republican lawmakers — Sen. Carl Crabtree of Grangeville and Rep. Judy Boyle of Midvale — introduced a $42.1 million bill designed to move the cost of full-day kindergarten off the property tax and onto state coffers. The proposal didn’t get a full committee hearing, but Crabtree has vowed to pursue the issue again in 2022.

Wednesday’s State Board vote was merely a recommendation. The board wants Gov. Brad Little to endorse the all-day kindergarten funding concept. If he signs on, the board would work on a more concrete proposal at its August meeting.

The State Board is composed of seven gubernatorial appointees and one elected official, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra.

The board also recommended six other legislative proposals, including a student loan forgiveness plan for teachers who work in rural schools or at-risk student populations. Loan forgiveness would increase annually if teachers stay on the job for five years. The proposal would cost taxpayers nearly $11.9 million over five years.

Legislative Democrats have proposed several teacher loan assistance bills in previous sessions. The Senate Education Committee rejected one such proposal in 2021.

The board’s other legislative recommendations include a shift in the way the state carves up K-12 dollars. The board recommended using a formula based on full-time student enrollment, rather than average daily student attendance. The state allowed schools to use a similar enrollment-based formula during the pandemic.

“This one seemed to work during COVID,” Clark said. “I think we’re onto something.”

Board rescinds college entrance exam requirement

A college entrance examination requirement is on the way out — maybe.

The State Board rescinded the requirement Wednesday. However, the state’s four-year institutions could still decide to make applicants take a test and submit their scores. It will now be up to the four schools to decide.

The State Board had waived the college entrance exam requirement during the pandemic. Wednesday’s board vote — which permanently eliminates the statewide exam requirement — comes as colleges and universities across the country are dropping their test requirements.

Idaho high school students still must take a college placement exam in order to get their diploma. However, the State Board will in August discuss a rule change that would drop that high school graduation requirement.

Board approves COVID relief spending plan

The State Board also approved a state spending plan for $440 million in federal COVID school relief aid, called American Rescue Plan ESSER funds.

The ARP ESSER spending plan clarifies an earlier draft published by the State Department of Education and sets three core priorities for Idaho schools:

  • Improving broadband access for students across the state.
  • Addressing unfinished learning for students, with an emphasis on kindergarten through fourth-grade literacy, fourth- through ninth-grade mathematics and credit completion and course recovery in high school.
  • Addressing students’ social and emotional issues.

The state’s spending plan is a guiding document for local school districts, which are required to create their own plans for spending the federal funds.

“I don’t want to say this is the easy part, but the real work is actually going to happen in the LEAs with, ‘All right, what programs do we put in place using these resources to help kids who have experienced interrupted learning?'” State Board president Kurt Liebich said.

The federal government requires the state and local districts to seek input from “diverse stakeholders” to inform this plan, including students, families, tribes and representatives of different demographic groups, English language learners, children experiencing homelessness and others. The SDE met with various statewide groups to discuss the plan, and posted the draft online for public comment.

The state received only 15 public comments: Two came from the same woman, one commenter called the American Rescue Plan “garbage that steals from Americans,” and another asked the state to ban student mask mandates.

Idaho was initially expected to submit a spending plan to the feds on June 7, but the State Board delayed that submission earlier this month, saying it needed more time to evaluate and edit the proposal. The federal government extended Idaho’s submission deadline to June 18.

State Board approves U of I cybersecurity degree

Also Wednesday, the State Board approved a University of Idaho master’s degree program in cybersecurity, as the state’s colleges and universities continue to carve up niches in this growing academic field.

The state has approved a cybersecurity master’s degree at Boise State University, launching this fall. The U of I launched a bachelor’s program in the fall of 2020. The U of I’s Moscow-based master’s program, also launching this fall, will be more research-based.

“Every day, we hear of cybersecurity breaches in the news. Most recently, problems have turned from stealing customer data from global companies to shutting down major industrial infrastructure and demanding ransom payments,” U of I College of Engineering Dean Larry Stauffer said in a Wednesday news release. “There are hundreds of lower-profile attacks every day. We owe it to our businesses and communities to provide the highly educated cybersecurity professionals needed in Idaho and our nation.”

At Little’s behest, the state’s eight public colleges and universities have been working on a joint cybersecurity major since 2020.

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