Statehouse roundup, 2.16.23: Budget-writers OK money for dyslexia training

Legislative budget-writers approved $1.5 million to ramp up dyslexia training in the schools — but not without some pushback.

The $1.5 million would fund training through the end of the school year, supporting a new dyslexia screening and training program that lawmakers approved unanimously in 2022. The program is designed to help educators identify and help children with dyslexia, a reading disorder affecting about one in five Idaho students.

Thursday morning’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee debate looped back to that 2022 law.

The law’s “fiscal note,” a nonbinding cost estimate, pegged the first-year costs at $97,000, enough to fund a full-time position in the State Department of Education.

The $1.5 million, not mentioned in the 2022 law, would cover training in the schools.

Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, made a push to fund only the $97,000. But JFAC members made a bipartisan appeal for the $1.5 million.

Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Wendy Horman, JFAC’s House co-chair, noted that the $1.5 million represents money that would go straight to schools.

Rep. Matt Bundy, R-Mountain Home, noted that the 2022 law mandated the training in the schools, which is already underway. “We gave them a requirement, but not the money.”

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, appeared to blame former state superintendent Sherri Ybarra for the cost confusion facing lawmakers this session. “I’m not sure all the research had been done.”

JFAC approved the $1.5 million on a 17-2 vote. Herndon and Rep. Josh Tanner, R-Eagle, cast the dissenting votes.

Earlier Thursday morning, Tanner raised more general concerns about the cost of the new dyslexia program.

Tanner said he had dyslexia as a child, and said his daughter has dyslexia as well. While acknowledging the need, he said the ongoing cost of training and screening “seems to be a little excessive.”

The 2023-24 program budget is projected at $1.4 million — with ongoing costs projected at $535,000 per year.

Addressing JFAC Thursday morning, House Education Committee Chairwoman Julie Yamamoto said dyslexia training will be a day-to-day need. She noted that dyslexia affects children in different ways.

“The science of reading is not rocket science,” said Yamamoto, R-Caldwell. “It’s harder.”

The $1.5 million is a supplemental budget, covering costs for the current fiscal year, ending June 30. It now must pass the House and the Senate.

School counselors tell lawmakers they’re overworked, underpaid and afraid

“There are days that this job, education, is hard, and I often feel like I’m not allowed to do my job…If I could wave a magic wand, I would love to take away the fear that lives in educators’ and in school counselors’ minds.”

That’s what Idaho School Counselor of the Year Jordan Chesler told the House Education Committee Thursday morning, as she detailed her own and her coworkers’ experiences working in schools.

Jordan Chesler

It’s common to hear staff in her building lead jokes with, “When I get sued…” or “When I get jumped in the parking lot…,” Chesler said. This year, one parent threw a stack of papers at her during a meeting. Another family threatened to contact Gov. Brad Little over a forgotten phone call.

Chesler joined Idaho School Counselor Association President Aimee Hurst at the Statehouse Thursday morning for a presentation on the state of school counseling in Idaho.

Hurst outlined for lawmakers a school counselor’s basic responsibilities — academic, social and emotional, and career and college services — as defined by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA).

But in a state where the student-counselor ratio far exceeds the recommended average (the ASCA recommended ratio is 250:1; Idaho sits at 500:1), and most districts experience staffing shortages in other areas, counselors are often thrown into roles outside the recommended scope, she said. A school counselor herself, Hurst also serves as the school social worker, nurse, anti-discrimination coordinator, and positive behavioral interventions and supports coach.

For more on school counseling in Idaho, read reporter Carly Flandro’s report here.

Juggling these responsibilities and high student-counselor ratios, she said, does impact the level of service the student population receives.

“We do the best we can,” Hurst said, “but…we end up with waiting lists of students … and things that could have been handled in the moment can become crises for these students.”

Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, asked Hurst about the specifics of social emotional learning (SEL) — a domain of school counseling that’s central to some of the hottest debates in the Legislature. SEL has been criticized by conservative lawmakers for promoting critical race theory, social justice ideals, and what they call ‘liberal indoctrination.’

“That term…SEL has been used to demonize, quite frankly, and disparage (the school counseling) profession,” Berch said, before asking Hurst to respond to claims portraying SEL as something that causes psychological harm and “tyranny of the mind.”

Aimee Hurst

As a branch of counseling, SEL teaches communication, conflict resolution, peer relationships, positive adult interactions and emotional regulation. Under their code of ethics, school counselors’ first responsibility is to the child, but they’re also charged with removing their personal biases and respecting parents’ values, beliefs and cultural backgrounds, Hurst said.

Rep. Dan Garner, R-Clifton, brought up his rural district, which has faced a shortage of applicants for counseling positions. He asked Hurst what the Legislature can do to assist districts trying to recruit and retain school counselors.

She highlighted what Rep. Lance Clow called an “unfair aspect” of Idaho’s career ladder, which determines the salaries of certified school employees. Although school counselors are required to have a three-year master’s degree before working in schools, they earn the same entry level salary as teachers who can work straight out of college.

Additional funding to compensate school counselors and add positions to reduce the student-counselor ratio, she said, would likely help with recruiting and retaining good employees.

Committee sends two charter financing bills to the Senate floor

Two charter school financing bills are headed to the Senate floor.

The Senate Education Committee endorsed a plan to create a $50 million revolving loan fund. The fund would offset some building costs for fledgling charter schools, which would be eligible for no-interest loans of up to $2.5 million. The schools would have five years to pay off the loans.

Several charter school advocates spoke in favor of Senate Bill 1043. Anthony Haskett, the executive director of Mosaics Public School in Caldwell, said a similar program would have saved his school about $25,000 per year during its launch.

The committee passed the bill unanimously — with committee Democrats saying they wished the Legislature would take a creative approach to building new public schools and replacing aging schools. “We have got to do better for our public, traditional schools,” said Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise.

The bill’s sponsor said she wouldn’t rule that out. “Those things are still on the table,” said Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian.

The Senate will likely vote on SB 1043 in the next few days.

A similar bill passed the House in 2022, but stalled in the Senate.

Also Thursday, Senate Education took up a bill to expand a state program that backstops financing for established charter schools.

Established in 2019, the state’s program has allowed nine schools to save $9.8 million in interest, said Den Hartog, who is sponsoring this bill. But the program has reached its cap, supporting about $122 million in financing.

Senate Bill 1042 would do two things: It would effectively double the cap to $244 million, and expand the program to include charter schools serving at-risk students.

Andy Johnson, executive director of Boise-based Sage International School, said his school used its $100,000 in annual savings to hire two additional teachers. “We took advantage of this program, and it paid off.”

This bill is headed to the Senate floor, where it could be amended. Den Hartog is seeking to make a technical amendment to the bill — but once a bill is opened for amendment, any lawmaker can propose any change to it.




Kevin Richert and Sadie Dittenber

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