Free speech bill emerges; adult completer scholarship gets a hearing

The House Education Committee introduced a bill Wednesday designed to emphasize free speech rights on Idaho’s college and university campuses.

Pushed by a bipartisan alliance between Reps. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, and Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, the new bill prevents colleges from inhibiting free speech rights.

The one-page bill states, in part: “… no public institution of higher education shall abridge the constitutional freedom of any individual, including enrolled students, faculty and other employees, and invited guests to speak on campus.”

In presenting the bill, McCrostie referenced debates at Boise State University after political science professor Scott Yenor published a controversial article last summer referencing “radical feminists” and transgender rights.

McCrostie said his bill “is designed to protect freedom of speech.” He also quoted retiring Boise State Bob Kustra as saying public universities always have been and will remain a marketplace of ideas.

“This bill does not change any constitutionally protected rights,” McCrostie said. “It ensures we are protecting them where they are, arguably, the most vital.”

Some legislators, such as New Plymouth Republican Rep. Ryan Kerby, asked McCrostie to discuss safety issues that may arise when controversial speakers visit campus. Kerby also questioned a note attached to the bill that says passage of the bill will not require state funds.

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Nevertheless, committee members voted unanimously to introduce the bill. Introducing the free speech bill clears the way for it to return to the committee for a full public hearing.

Lots of talk, not vote on adult completer scholarship

The Senate Education Committee will vote Thursday on a bill that could make state college scholarship dollars available to older students.

The adult completer scholarship would be available to students who left college with some credits, but no degree. An estimated 275,000 Idahoans fall into this category. Gov. Butch Otter says an adult scholarship program is a key to improving Idaho’s languid college graduation rates — and meeting the demands of Idaho employers.

“We have a skills gap,” said Marilyn Whitney, Otter’s aide on education topics.

Senate Education took no vote on the proposal Wednesday, but heard from several speakers who supported Otter’s bill. And four speakers said they had been nontraditional students themselves — the very students who could benefit from a new scholarship.

“It took me 16 years to get a four-year degree,” said Kent Kunz, a lobbyist for Idaho State University. “Life got in the way.”

One of Otter’s education priorities for 2018, Senate Bill 1279 would allow the State Board of Education to siphon up to 20 percent of Idaho’s Opportunity Scholarship money into an adult completer program. This $10 million-a-year scholarship program generally supports traditional, 18- to 22-year-old students. But the scholarship is in high demand; about 2,400 eligible students are on a waiting list for a share of the money, State Board executive director Matt Freeman said Wednesday.

Those numbers left Sen. Jim Guthrie skeptical. “Why are we starting a new program if we can’t fund the one we’ve got?” said Guthrie, R-McCammon.

The Legislature has rejected the adult completer scholarship for two successive years. And if questions from committee members are any indication, the bill could face a narrow vote in committee Thursday.

After taking 45 minutes of testimony Wednesday — all in support of SB 1279 — committee Chairman Dean Mortimer announced he was putting the vote on hold for a day. The reason: Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, had to leave the committee meeting for a prior commitment.

Nonini could prove to be a swing vote on the proposal. And as a member of Otter’s higher education task force, Nonini supported adding the adult completer scholarship into the group’s recommendations.

Thursday shapes up as an eventful hearing in Senate Education. The committee is also slated to vote on the controversial state science standards, eight days after holding a public hearing on the issue.

Mastery-based education

In other action, House Education passed a bill aimed at expanding the state’s fledgling mastery-based education program.

A year ago, legislators created a pilot program allowing 20 schools to participate in a mastery education network.

House Bill 589 would remove the cap on the number of schools allowed to participate. Duncan Robb, chief policy adviser to schools chief Sherri Ybarra, said about 30 other schools are interested and HB 589 would encourage and facilitate the expansion of the program.

The bill also establishes a mastery-based education advisory commission to study the transition to mastery across the state and recommend policy changes.

During the meeting, educators from several pilot schools spoke about their experiences with mastery. Those schools included Middleton Academy, Columbia High School, Greenhurst Elementary and Meridian Technical Charter High School.

House Education passed the bill easily, but the hearing was a bit rocky. Several legislators appeared hung up on the basic tenets of mastery, that students will not advance to the next lesson or subject without first mastering the previous unit of study. Several lawmakers expressed concerns that it would be demoralizing for a student to have to repeat a grade or take a test over and over again until mastering it.

Questions remain about funding for an expanded mastery program. On Monday, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee declined to add $1.4 million into the public school budgets to expand mastery-based education, as Ybarra and Otter requested. JFAC budget-writers balked at providing the money because, at that time, House Education had not passed HB 589.

At one point Wednesday, Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise, attempted to delay a vote on HB 589, saying lawmakers had more questions and needed to adjourn the meeting to attend a floor session.

Chairwoman Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, appeared to support McDonald. Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, interjected and said “I think we’ve beat this thing to death, Madam Chair.”

At that point the committee voted to send the bill to the House floor with a recommendation that it pass.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.

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