Statehouse roundup, 2.19.24: Bill on immunization opt-outs heads to House

Dozens of school trustees from across Idaho descended on Boise Monday for the annual “Day on the Hill” event sponsored by the Idaho School Boards Association. (Photo: Darren Svan/EdNews)

A bill that could require schools to notify parents about vaccination exemption law is on its way to the House.

Under House Bill 438, schools would be required to let parents know they can opt their children out of vaccinations — if they provide information about a section of state law on the immunization guidelines.

“They’re providing half the story,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dori Healey, R-Boise, a registered nurse.

While state law says immunizations are mandatory, that wording is deceptive. Parents can opt out of immunizations on religious grounds — or for any reason. All they need to do is turn in a note to their child’s school.

Historically, Idaho has one of the nation’s lowest immunization rates, and one of the nation’s highest immunization opt-out rates.

After limited discussion, the House Health and Welfare Committee moved the bill to the House floor on a party-line vote.

In other business, the committee introduced a separate bill that would address immunization opt-outs for students over the age of 18. The bill would clarify that 18-year-olds would be able to opt out of immunization guidelines for 12th graders, and any immunization requirements at colleges, universities or trade schools. This bill could come back to the committee for a hearing at a later date.

House rejects bill to strengthen school bullying reporting

House Republicans on Monday narrowly rejected a bill that would have beefed-up reporting requirements on school bullying. 

Rep. Chris Mathias’ proposal would have directed public school administrators to notify parents and provide “parental empowerment materials” when their child is the aggressor or victim in a bullying incident. House Republicans worried a new policy could increase liability for school districts if a student is harmed. 

“The first thing a good attorney does when that student has been injured is look for some policy that has been violated by the school district,” said Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa. “The more policies, the more likely one is going to be violated.” 

Currently, Idaho law directs districts to “undertake reasonable efforts” to report the number of harassment, intimidation and bullying incidents. Mathias, D-Boise, argued that simply reporting the numbers of incidents is ineffective at addressing school bullying. 

The bill would have directed school administrators to give parents information on suicide prevention and limiting access to harmful tools after their child’s involvement in a bullying incident. 

Other Republicans resisted a statewide policy that already can be locally implemented by school districts. 

“If this is a good policy, let them develop that policy,” said Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa. “I don’t think we need to pass a law that makes them have to do it.”

Mathias pointed to House Republicans’ recent overwhelming support for a bill that supersedes local policies governing whether teachers can carry guns. 

“Whether school districts are already permitted to do something cannot be determinative of our decision today, as it has not been in the past,” Mathias said. “At the end of the day…we’re trying to codify best practices.”

The bill failed by a 32-38 vote.

Republicans target public resources going to teachers’ unions

A trio of Republicans Monday introduced a bill that would restrict teachers’ unions’ access to school resources. 

The bill would prohibit public schools from contributing public funds directly to a teachers’ union. It would also block teachers’ unions from using school facilities on terms more favorable than what’s offered to other organizations. And it bars administrators from urging union membership or communicating on behalf of a teachers’ union. 

The legislation is meant to give teachers “greater control over their paychecks and more appropriately steward taxpayer resources,” said Rep. Sage Dixon, one of the three Republican co-sponsors. “It is an effort to not have public funds going to private organizations.” 

The bill would prohibit public school administrators from: 

  • Padding a teacher’s pay to cover union dues.
  • Providing a teacher’s contact information to a union.
  • Communicating on behalf of a teachers’ union.
  • Expending public funds on behalf of a teachers’ union.
  • Offering paid leave for a teacher to engage in union activities, unless the district is compensated for the time.

The legislation blocks “any form of compensation” for a teacher that’s “engaging in union activities,” unless a district is reimbursed for the pay. Union activities are defined as union-sponsored meetings, events and training and promoting membership in a union. The definition also includes advocating for or against legislation or a political candidate if the advocacy is meant to “advance the purposes of a teachers’ union.” 

The House State Affairs Committee Monday voted to approve the bill that’s co-sponsored by Dixon of Ponderay along with Sen. Ben Toews of Coeur d’Alene and Rep. Dale Hawkins of Fernwood. 

In a blog post last month, Idaho Education Association leaders said they’ve been monitoring “union-busting” legislation that would surface this session. They compared the proposals to the “Luna laws,” named for former State Superintendent Tom Luna. Before voters repealed them by referendum, the Luna laws would have limited teachers’ unions’ collective bargaining power. 

The new bill could return to the State Affairs Committee in the coming days or weeks. 

Rep. Todd Achilles asked Dixon to explain at a future hearing why other unions, like groups representing firefighters and police officers, are exempt from the provisions of the bill. “I would think that if we want to look at public unions we should look at the whole universe of public unions,” said Achilles, D-Boise, who was recently appointed to replace former Rep. Colin Nash.

School choice exchange marks ISBA visit to Senate committee

Nearly 200 trustees and administrators packed the Statehouse’s largest committee room Monday afternoon, and a brief school debate broke out.

At the end of the Senate Education Committee’s meeting, committee chair Dave Lent opened the floor for comments.

Cottonwood school Superintendent Jon Rehder took Lent up on the offer, urging lawmakers to reject tax credits or other proposals that would move state dollars into unaccountable private schools.

“I will fight tooth and nail to keep every public dollar in public education,” said Rehder, drawing loud applause from the audience.

But Rehder’s remarks were met mostly with silence from the committee — especially from Republicans who have supported education savings accounts, tax credits and other measures that fall under the broad heading of school choice.

Moments later, one of the committee’s school choice supporters spoke up. Money for school choice programs can come from surpluses or other funding sources, said Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, a Senate Education member who also sits on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

“Rest assured we take our responsibility to public schools seriously,” he said.

Idaho School Boards Association members were in the committee room — and are at the Statehouse this week — for their annual Capitol lobbying trip.

ISBA represents about 800 trustees and charter school board members. The group is pushing 21 legislative resolutions. One resolution, approved more than a year ago, opposes any measure that would divert public dollars into private or parochial schools.

Adults could get high school diplomas under new bill

A new bill would allow adults to obtain high school diplomas. 

The General Education Development (GED) test is the only option for adults seeking a high school credential after aging out of secondary school at 22, said Rep. James Petzke. But the GED doesn’t display the same type of skill competence or have the same status in college applications as a high school diploma, he said. 

“They even put you in a lower tier for military recruitment status,” said Petzke, R-Meridian. 

Petzke’s bill would create a State Board of Education-administered accreditation program allowing public and private high schools to issue high school diplomas to students 22 and older.  

The bill proposes a $3.1 million, two-year pilot program, which would cover 450 graduates and one full-time employee to administer it. 

The House Education Committee introduced the bill Monday, and it could return for a public hearing in the coming days or weeks. 

Replacement outcomes-based funding bill introduced

Also on Monday, Rep. James Petzke introduced a new version of a bill that would tie $40 million in K-12 school funding to student achievement. 

Petzke, R-Meridian, said the replacement simply clarifies “ambiguous language” in the original bill, which the committee introduced last week.

Kevin Richert and Ryan Suppe

Kevin Richert and Ryan Suppe

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business.

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