Statehouse roundup, 2.23.15: Broadband bailout, and more

The $3.6 million high school broadband bailout is on its way to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk.

The Senate passed the four-month funding plan Monday morning, on a 33-0 vote.

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Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls

“This is not a situation that any of us thought we would be in,” said Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a member of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

However, the state’s broadband system is in a precarious situation. The contract for the existing Idaho Education Network system has been voided in court. The state owes millions of dollars to the network’s contractors, Education Networks of America and CenturyLink — and cannot pay back debts since the contract has been deemed illegal. Without a statewide contract, districts are now forced to scramble to cut their own short-term deals, and ENA is threatening to cut off any schools that don’t sign a contract by week’s end.

Under House Bill 168, districts can apply for reimbursement for broadband. The reimbursements will be handled by the state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s staff.

“We are watching that very closely,” said JFAC co-chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who says some districts are actually saving money on their short-term deals. “We’re hearing good reports.”

The short-term bailout leaves several questions unanswered. It does not address a long-term contract for broadband. Nor does it address back debts under the voided contract — although the bill does take away $5 million from the Administration Department, money that had been earmarked to pay contractors, before the network contract was declared void.

The bailout bill passed the House Thursday.

In other Statehouse education news:

Alternative contracts. The House Education Committee advanced a new kind of contracting bill that supporters say will allow investors to fund education programs.

Pushed by Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Rep, Steven Harris, R-Meridian, House Bill 170 would allow the State Department of Education to enter into “pay for success contracts.”

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Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene

If the bill passes, the state could enter into contracts where private investors bear the burden for up-front program financing. The idea is that evidence-based programs would be negotiated to help improve student achievement. There would be no initial cost or risk to the state, as private investors would partner with companies or nonprofits to finance the program. If a third-party evaluator deemed the program a success that saved the state money, those state savings would be used to repay the initial investors.

Nonini and Harris pitched the plan as alternative means of financing private education groups that could provide training to improve childhood reading scores – among other uses.

The Boise-based nonprofit Lee Pesky Learning Center said it is interested in working with the state and private investors under the proposal.

“It does not force the State Department (of Education) or any local district into a contract they don’t want,” said Kate Hass, a Boise lobbyist representing Lee Pesky. “It does allow the private sector to bear the risk for innovation in education. It’s not a mandate for any specific company.”

Lee Pesky would be interested in working with families throughout the state to train adults to help their children develop literacy skills. If children participating in the program post better reading scores by third grade, for example, the investors backing Lee Pesky would be reimbursed from money the state would otherwise spend on remedial programs.

“I want to have every child read at grade level by third grade,” Nonini said. “That’s a lofty goal, probably unattainable, but the bill starts that process. It gets the private sector involved.”

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Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise

Reps. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, and Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, expressed concerns, in light of the state’s Idaho Education Network contract woes.

“What control are in place… to make sure nothing spins out of control or we don’t end up relying on potentially misleading benchmarks?” Rubel asked.

Boyle also requested lawmakers amend the bill to specify which groups would act as third-party evaluators, although no amendments were approved.

Charter enrollment. The Senate Education Committee gave its go-ahead to a bill designed to enable charter school students to move more easily within the K-12 system.

The preference would extend to students moving from a charter grade school to a charter junior high school, or from a charter junior high school to a charter high school. These students would have preference ahead of most students living within a charter school’s primary attendance area, or students selected in a charter school lottery.

The bill will allow a seamless transition from one charter to the next, and encourage collaboration between charter schools, said Keith Donahue, development director at Sage International School, a Boise charter school.

Senate Bill 1087 will go to the Senate floor, after the committee gave it unanimous approval.

Reporters Kevin Richert and Clark Corbin contributed to this report.