Statehouse roundup, 1.15.19: Scholarship expansion, school safety update, mastery

Several House Education Committee members expressed skepticism Tuesday over expanding a popular scholarship to benefit adults returning to school.

The questions came as State Board of Education Executive Director Matt Freeman wrapped up an annual report to the committee on the usage and cost of the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship.

Last session — after a deep debate — lawmakers voted to increase funding for the scholarship and expand eligibility requirements to benefit adults who completed some college courses but dropped out.

Matt Freeman

Freeman told lawmakers that adults are applying for the scholarship and using it to return to school, but the rollout has been slow since the state expanded it to adults on July 1.

In the fall of 2018, 112 adults applied for the scholarship and 32 received money.

So far in the spring of 2019, 188 adults have applied and Freeman estimated the state will award 39 scholarships.

Freeman set aside $1 million for the year to award scholarships to adults. In the fall, adults received $77,438, and Freeman estimates awarding another $50,000 in the spring. The rest of the $1 million will go back to the scholarship fund to benefit traditional applicants who are graduating from high school.

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“We knew this would start slow, but we expect the pace to pick up,” Freeman said.

By law, adults can receive no more than 20 percent of Opportunity Scholarship funds.

Several legislators remain skeptical about expanding the scholarship to adults.

“How much are we going to spend to make this thing fly and, if not, get rid of it?” asked Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley.

Freeman said he has no state funding to promote the scholarship. But the board received a $400,000 Lumina Foundation grant which will be used, in part, to raise awareness about the benefit in rural counties.

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, complained the state is doing a disservice by not targeting the scholarship to adults who were on the cusp of graduating and fell only a few credits short.

Freeman said the scholarship is open to adults who have earned at least 24 college credits and maintained a minimum 2.7 GPA before stopping out.

Freeman said he would like three to five years to study the data before drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of expanding the scholarship to adults. He also stressed funding that is not used by adults is returned to benefit more traditional students going on from high school.

Last year, the Legislature put $13.5 million into the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship.

The scholarship is back in the news after new Gov. Brad Little used his State of the State address to call on the Legislature to increase scholarship spending by $7 million. The extra money is designed to serve some students who are eligible for scholarships, but miss out on a share of money. In 2017-18, the State Board could not award scholarships to 1,780 eligible applicants, due to a lack of funding.

About 3,400 students are on a scholarship waiting list, Freeman said Tuesday.

School safety

The Idaho Office of School Safety and Security hopes to roll out a confidential tip line in the spring.

Program Manager Brian Armes told House Education his office will use a U.S. Department of Justice grant of nearly $200,000 to implement the electronic tip line.

Armes said the tip line fits with the office’s priority to take a proactive, rather than a reactive approach to school safety.

“Really, what we need to talk a lot more about is these preventative actions,” Armes said. “When you talk about school violence, over 85 percent of the time these are people who are known to us.”

Armes said he anticipates finalizing the grant contract at the end of this week, and then offering training to school districts. If all goes well, Armes hopes the tip line will go live March 1.

Little used last week’s State of the State address to call for additional federal spending authority to accept the grant for the tip line.

Armes also used his report to update House Education on his office’s progress to conduct campus visits and security assessments at every Idaho public school building.

As of Dec. 1, the office’s security consultants have visited 498 of Idaho’s 730 schools.

Armes said the consultants are on track to visit every school within the three-year period since the Legislature created the Office of School Safety and Security in 2016.

During Tuesday’s meeting, nobody mentioned or asked questions about Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra’s Keep Idaho Students Safe school security proposal — even though Ybarra was sitting in the second row during the meeting.

Ybarra has signaled she will ask legislators for more than $19 million for the budget year ending June 30, to award school safety grants to every Idaho public school. But last summer, Armes and several education groups said Ybarra did not consult with them before publicly releasing details of her KISS proposal.

Little is not recommending any funding for Ybarra’s KISS proposal, which has never had a legislative hearing.

Mastery education

Ybarra’s SDE wants to expand Idaho’s “mastery-based” schools program — and the department spent an hour making the case in the Senate Education Committee.

Lawmakers also heard from administrators and students from a couple of the state’s mastery incubators, schools that are shifting from a learning model that advances students through the school system based on their command of subject matter.

Advocates, including Ybarra, say the mastery program better aligns learning to students’ needs and skills.

“I could not see us changing back to the traditional way,” said Greg Bailey, superintendent of the Moscow School District, which has shifted all of its schools to the mastery model. It has taken time, in some cases, but Bailey says his faculty has generally embraced the move away from the traditional model, which advances students through the K-12 system based on seat time.

Joined by two of his students — including Noor Mohammed, the daughter of immigrants from Iraq — Principal Donell McNeal touted the success of mastery programs at Central Academy, an alternative high school in the West Ada School District. Students such as Mohammed have been able to catch up after falling behind in traditional high schools. Graduation rates and test scores are improving.

The state is trying out the mastery concept at 19 incubator sites and 32 schools such as Central. Ybarra is seeking $1.4 million, to bring the number of incubators to 40.

The proposal faces long odds. A year ago, Senate Education killed Ybarra’s bill to expand the mastery program. Little did not include the $1.4 million for mastery in his budget request. Senators did not ask Ybarra — or Kelly Brady, Ybarra’s point person on mastery – to make a case for the SDE request.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.

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