Statehouse roundup, 1.18.22: Deadlocked committee kills parental freedom bill

The first parental rights bill of the 2022 session died Tuesday, when a deadlocked Senate Education Committee refused to print it.

Co-authored by Republican state superintendent’s candidate Branden Durst and Hammett Republican Sen. Christy Zito, the “Idaho Parental Freedom in Education Act” would have allowed parents to review all documents pertaining to their child’s education, visit school buildings and classrooms “without prior consent or notification,” and refuse the use of medical devices or treatments.

“Parents’ rights to make decisions for their children are not granted from the government, but are divinely given,” the bill read in part.

Durst, a former legislator and Senate Education member, said his bill reflects a variety of parental concerns — about access to schools and mask requirements.

“(Parents) are feeling very frustrated,” said Durst, who added that he had received an “overwhelming” response to the bill on social media.

The reaction from senators was considerably less enthusiastic.

Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, expressed concern with the bill’s “adversarial” tone, and a clause that would leave a school subject to a $1,000 civil penalty. Durst said the penalties would only apply to a school that was “obstinate” in its refusal to comply.

Sen. Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls, said he was concerned the bill would put schools in the middle of child custody disputes. Durst, who works as a child custody mediator, said schools routinely navigate child custody agreements, and realize that a noncustodial parent has no right to take a child from school.

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, questioned language requiring schools to offer alternative assignments, fearing a “free-for-all.” Durst said the language was a safeguard to ensure high school students stay on path for graduation. “I don’t think it’s likely that many parents would take advantage of that provision.”

Tuesday’s introductory hearing was unorthodox. Typically, legislative committees vote to introduce or “print” bills with little discussion. At the outset of the hearing, Senate Education Chair Steven Thayn said he wanted to start the discussion on parental rights, but didn’t commit to the bill in question.

“There’s several parents’ rights bills floating around the Legislature,” said Thayn, R-Emmett. “I’m not necessarily planning a hearing on this any time soon.”

Durst called his bill a less comprehensive and “watered-down version” of a parental rights bill circulating in the House.

Senate Education voted 4-4 to print the bill, meaning the motion died on a tie vote. The roll call:

Yes: Sens. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian; Cook; Lent; and Thayn.

No: Sens. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville; David Nelson, D-Moscow; Jim Woodward, R-Sagle; and Ward-Engelking.

Absent: Sen. Robert Blair, a substitute for Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston.

House Ed briefed on student safety data gap

State Department of Education staffers wrapped up Idaho superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s budget pitch while she attended an Idaho Land Board meeting across the Statehouse rotunda. Idaho STEM Action Center Executive Director Kaitlin Maguire updated lawmakers on the state-run workforce development group’s efforts over the last year. And House Education Committee members responded to both in the committee’s informational meeting Tuesday.

No action was scheduled or taken, though lawmakers were briefed on some challenges facing Idaho schools.

A hole in ‘critical’ survey numbers: SDE student engagement and safety head Eric Studebaker told the committee that the public won’t have access to student safety survey data this year because not enough school districts participated.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey assesses students’ risk of suicide, self-harm, addiction and other threats to their health and safety.

But participation fell to 41% in 2021 after hitting at least 89% participation in all of its other 30 years of administration, Studebaker said. He isn’t sure why and said the SDE is partnering with the Idaho School Boards Association to ensure a participation rebound this year.

The most recent results from the biannual survey were collected in 2019.

The survey also asks students whether they’ve been physically or emotionally abused by romantic partners, sexually assaulted or otherwise harmed.

Rep. Barbara Ehardt took issue with “sexual questions” she said were included on the survey in the past, a concern she raised in 2019, according to EdNews reporting. Tuesday, she didn’t elaborate on the specific questions she took issue with.

“Some of these questions, kids didn’t even know what it was. But of course, it put those thoughts in their mind,” Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, said.

In response to stakeholder feedback, SDE has changed some of the survey questions, pulled from a bank of questions from the Centers for Disease Control, Studebaker said.

“It does ask questions about sexual activities. It is a broad survey that looks at youth risk behavior, and so it’s inclusive of a variety of student behaviors. It’s also the only data we have that is statistically generalizable for the state of Idaho and is critical for us when we are making decisions about programming and what the needs of our students are,” he said.

Education footnotes:

Committee chair Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said a “small group” of people are looking into rewriting the state’s formula for funding school transportation.

  • The arcane issue has been the subject of some debate among lawmakers, including in the Legislature’s House-Senate budget committee.
  • The funding formula has also been complicated by Great Recession-era changes, said SDE Deputy Superintendent Marilyn Whitney.

Maguire touted a batch of Idaho STEM Action Center programs.

  • Programs are geared at “increasing awareness of the importance of STEM, advancing access to high quality opportunities for educators, students and communities, and then aligning education and workforce needs throughout the state,” she said.
  • The center is doing so with fundraising from the private sector; it raised $2 million last year. “So about 98% of funds we receive are restricted for particular programs.”

Former Boise School District Superintendent Don Coberly filled in for Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, who was at his day job teaching high school music classes.

  • Said Clow, “They have so few substitutes for teachers in the school system where he is a full-time teacher that he decided to stay in the classroom and send a substitute here.”

Kevin Richert and Blake Jones

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