Statehouse roundup, 2.11.14: New bill would make enrollment-based funding shift permanent

Idaho could join a majority of U.S. states in funding schools based on their total enrollment, rather than based on their average daily attendance, under a new bill.

Coronavirus surges have fueled spikes in student absences, leaving school districts across the state wary that dropoffs in attendance-based state funding will follow. To stave off losses, the State Board of Education temporarily switched Idaho over to enrollment-based funding both this school year and last.

The House Education Committee unanimously introduced a bill to make the change permanent with no debate Friday.

“This bill, I think you’ll find, it’s well supported by virtually all stakeholders,” bill sponsor and House Education Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, told the committee. “As long as I’ve been in the Legislature, the education community has been saying, ‘We have to budget for every kid we expect to be there every day. We have to build facilities for (all students) and buy all the supplies and the desks, etc.”’

In an October op-ed, 13 retired and current superintendents called on the state to abandon the “outdated and ineffective” funding method to avoid a “fiscal crisis.” State superintendent Sherri Ybarra, too, has backed the change. (Here’s an explainer on the debate between enrollment- and attendance-based funding.)

As of February 2021, only seven states still used average daily attendance to determine school funding, according to the Urban Institute.

Although the pandemic has amplified calls for Idaho to make the switch, the funding debate predates the coronavirus by several years. A committee formed in 2016 to rework the state’s funding formula pushed a change to enrollment-based funding after three summers of meetings, but reforms never cleared the Legislature.

And issues of inequitable school funding have contoured ongoing debates about the funding formula. Attendance-based funding can deepen those problems.

“Because districts with lower rates of attendance also tend to serve larger shares of low-income students, states that use average daily allowance risked underfunding districts with higher levels of need even … before the pandemic,” according to the Urban Institute.

The bill could come back to House Education for a full hearing at a later date.

House Education also sent two bills to the House floor.

Senate Bill 1238. From Senate Education Chairman Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, would establish a “self-directed learner” designation.

Teachers could apply the label to academically advanced students based on benchmarks laid out in the bill, allowing self-directed learners to take advantage of greater schedule flexibility and opportunities outside the classroom.

Some school districts already give motivated students that sort of flexibility through similar programs, as SB 1238 would. But the bill would also allow schools to count self-directed learners as always in attendance, even if they’re not, to collect attendance-based funding from the state.

But even if Idaho makes a funding switch, schools would still need the bill to exempt them from seat-time requirements to operate self-directed learner programs.

“So this bill is still important,” Thayn, R-Emmett, said.

House Education passed it unanimously.

House Bill 545. Would create a revolving loan fund to help charter school leaders build new brick-and-mortar facilities at lower interest rates.

Charter schools could borrow up to $2.5 million at 0% interest from the new state fund to cover the costs of new building construction. They’d likely have to pay the money back into the fund over five years, said Emily McClure, lobbying for the bill on behalf of the Idaho Charter School Network.

The new fund would help charters, since they can’t ask voters to fund school bonds with property taxes, as traditional school districts can.

Only Rep. Steve Berch opposed HB 545 on a voice vote Friday, as he did in a vote to formally introduce it.

Berch, D-Boise, said his vote was “in no way a statement of not supporting charter schools,” and that “My concern is not really necessarily with the piece of paper in front of us here.”

Rather, he said his concern was “a more fundamental issue” on “a much broader level … on how we fund education overall. And so I’ll just leave it there.”

Restriction on ‘repeat’ bond issues heads to House floor

A bill restricting “repeat” bond issues is headed to the House floor.

House Bill 512 would require all local governments — including school districts — to wait 11 months before running a second bond issue.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, said she was not trying to single out schools, only “aggressive taxing districts” that continue to run bond issues after voters have said no. She did not cite specific examples.

Scott’s bill would address school bond issues, not school levies.

School bond issues were a recurring theme during a House State Affairs Committee hearing Friday.

Wilder School District Superintendent Jeff Dillon discussed an issue in his Canyon County district, more than a decade ago. The district decided to seek a lower-cost, $3.5 million bond issue to renovate an aging elementary school. That measure failed. District leaders soon learned that patrons wanted to replace the old school instead, so a $5 million bond issue for a new school passed a few months later.

The current system of paying for schools through local bond issues is unsustainable, Idaho School Boards Association deputy director Quinn Perry said. But as long as that system remains in place, schools need the flexibility to juggle facilities needs against the cost of building materials and changes in interest rates.

“A year in delay could be a difference in millions,” Perry said.

Other speakers urged the committee to protect property owners from onerous bond requests.

“Our ability to be homeowners … is in danger,” said Halli Stone, an Idaho Falls resident who has been an outspoken opponent of levy proposals in the Bonneville School District.

“Nobody will be hurt by this except the bad actors,” said Bryan Stutzman of Ammon.

House State Affairs voted to send HB 512 to the floor for a vote, likely to occur next week. On Friday, Rigby Republican Rep. Rod Furniss joined the committee’s two Democrats in opposition.

Scott’s bill is itself a repeat. The House passed a similar measure in 2020, but the Senate didn’t consider it.

Powerball bill makes its debut

Powerball represents a $9 million-a-year windfall for schools, and a bill would keep Idaho in an international lottery.

House State Affairs introduced a proposal extending Idaho’s 30-year Powerball participation.

Powerball was a sticky issue a year ago. House State Affairs refused to allow Idaho to remain in the Powerball compact as it seeks to expand into the United Kingdom and Australia — jeopardizing Powerball in the state. But when the international expansion was delayed, Idaho was able to remain in the lottery compact into 2022.

But with expansion imminent, lawmakers will have to give the go-ahead for Idaho to remain in the international lottery.

Idaho receives about $14 million a year in Powerball dividends. About $9 million goes to public schools, and the rest goes to the state Permanent Building Fund.

The bill is likely to return to House State Affairs for a full hearing.

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