Statehouse roundup, 2.10.22: Senate OKs $50 million education grant proposal

The $50 million Empowering Parents Grants bill sailed through the Senate Thursday morning.

A piece of Gov. Brad Little’s education agenda for 2022, the grants program would use federal coronavirus aid to help parents pay for a host of needs — computers and internet access to curricular materials and physical therapy.

“We can invest in education by investing directly in our parents and our students,” said Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, the bill’s floor sponsor.

Like its predecessor — the 2020 Strong Families, Strong Students grant program — the federal dollars would be awarded based on income. Families with an income of $60,000 or less would get the first shot at the grants, which would max out at $1,000 per student or $3,000 per household.

There was no debate against Senate Bill 1255 Thursday, but some debate about the state’s role in funding education.

Citing Idaho’s bottom-in-the-nation per-pupil spending, Sen. Grant Burgoyne said he was uneasy about siphoning dollars away from the schools. But the Boise Democrat said he reluctantly supported the bill, since computers and tablets have become a necessity for students.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Steven Thayn said the job of the Legislature goes beyond simply funding the school system. “We need to maintain and recognize where the responsibility resides for education, and that’s the parents,” the Emmett Republican said.

The bill passed 34-1, with only Sen. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello, voting against it.

SB 1255 now heads to the House. And if it passes, the Legislature will also have to pass a companion bill earmarking the federal money.

Senate Education adopts old standards; repeal could risk federal education funding

A proposal to repeal Idaho’s academic content standards could risk federal funding for K-12 schools, according to a recent attorney general’s opinion, released Wednesday.

The opinion comes as the Legislature’s two education committees could be in conflict over academic standards — a list of skills students are expected to develop by certain grade levels. Rewrite of the standards has been a hot topic at the Legislature for years.

On Thursday, with little discussion, the Senate Education Committee adopted more than 100 pages of rules. That document includes Idaho’s existing math, science and English language arts standards.

But House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, is pushing to revise Idaho’s math, science and English language arts standards. He has brought forward two proposals: a resolution to repeal the existing standards, and a bill that would force adoption of proposed standards that have been drafted over the last two years.

In general, according to the state’s complex rules review process, both houses have to reject an agency rule in order for it to be overturned. That means the Senate vote to keep the old standards would effectively override any House move to reject the old standards.

But Clow’s bill adds a new wrinkle — because bills override agency rules. So if both houses pass a bill to adopt new standards, that would take precedent. And Clow has support from Thayn for his repeal-and-replace proposals, the Senate Education Chairman told EdNews last month. So Thayn’s Thursday vote to accept the existing standards is unlikely to be the last word in this year’s standards debate.

The attorney general’s opinion explores another scenario: the question of what would happen if a repeal passes, and no new standards are adopted.

If that were to occur, Idaho wouldn’t have any math or English standards on the books — both of which are required to receive education funding from the federal government. “The United States Secretary of Education could then choose to exercise his authority to withhold funding,” said the analysis, written by chief deputy attorney general Brian Kane and requested by House Education member Sally Toone, D-Gooding.

However, Kane wrote, if Clow’s resolution to repeal the standards is passed alongside his bill to replace them with new standards, “federal funding may not be impacted.”

Here’s Kane’s full opinion:

The Democratic caucus shared the analysis with reporters Wednesday, after House Education Democrats questioned whether a lack of adopted standards could pose problems.

Though Clow’s twin proposals have been formally introduced in his committee, they’ve yet to receive full hearings or votes in House Education.

Kane’s analysis raises another question: whether the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, or ISAT, would have to be updated to align with new standards. Backers of the new standards have argued it wouldn’t, while critics contend the opposite.

If the test did require an update, Idaho would have to revise it to meet other federal requirements. And lack of a detailed fiscal note attached to the new standards — where those still unknown costs could be laid out — has prevented the State Board of Education from adopting the replacement standards, spokesperson Mike Keckler told EdNews last month.

As a result, the State Board hasn’t opened up the proposed standards to public comment. And even though the State Department of Education has, the standards would have to go up for comments to the State Board, Kane wrote.

Educator premium change heads to House

A bill that would allow a small group of K-12 teachers-turned-administrators to receive payouts awarded to veteran teachers is now headed to the House.

House Bill 533 would alter the state’s outgoing master educator premium program, which gives experienced teachers three $4,000 payments over three years.

Currently, awardees who have been promoted to school administrative roles aren’t eligible to receive the rest of the payments awarded to them. HB 533 would make those new principals and vice principals eligible for the remainder of their payments until the program sunsets in 2024.

Around 23 administrators would be affected, bill sponsor and Clow estimated.

One of those administrators is Nancy Jones, vice principal of Twin Falls High School. Jones will miss out on $8,000 if the bill doesn’t pass, she said, testifying in favor of the bill at House Education Thursday.

“We’ve stayed in education in the state of Idaho to be able to help students and staff. And in my first year as a vice principal … I believe that my impact is even greater now than it was as a classroom teacher,” Jones said.

Rep. Gary Marshall noted that teachers likely knew they would lose out on the premiums as they took higher-paying administrative jobs.

“Are we doing the right thing?” said Marshall, R-Idaho Falls.

But he eventually joined a unanimous vote to send HB 533 to the House floor.

‘Vaccine passport’ ban resurfaces

Rep. Jason Monks was back Thursday with a repeat bill from November — a ban on so-called “vaccine passports” at the state level.

His bill would essentially prohibit vaccine passports to enter state-owned facilities, use state services or work for a state agency. That means the bill would apply to the state’s colleges and universities.

“This is well within the purview of the state,” said Monks, R-Meridian.

The House passed a similar bill in November, when the Legislature reconvened for a three-day session, but it didn’t get a Senate hearing.

The House State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill Thursday, meaning it could come back for a full hearing later.

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