Statehouse roundup, 2.28.22: Education savings account proposal draws deep roster of testifiers

A bill that would allow families to spend up to $5,950 in state funds on their child’s private school tuition and fees pulled too many public testifiers to fit in a two-hour window.

The House Education Committee’s hearing on House Bill 669 drew a deep roster of opponents from public education groups and agencies Monday. Reps from the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators, the Idaho Education Association and the State Department of Education were among those arguing that the education savings account bill would siphon tax dollars away from public education and put them into schools that aren’t accountable to the state — in their finances, curriculum or learning outcomes.

“Whether you call it a savings account, or you call it a voucher, the results are the same. You take away the ability for the state to regulate (and) account for public dollars, and most importantly, have no control over curriculum being taught,” said IASA Executive Director Andy Grover.

A coalition including private school parents, state superintendent’s candidate Branden Durst and a rep from the national pro-school choice group EdChoice came out in full force for the bill, arguing public schools should have to compete with private schools for state funding, and that parents should be able to spend public funds on schools that align with their religious beliefs.

“This discussion is all about money and who it belongs to. The friends from alphabet soup that are sitting behind me believe it belongs to them,” Durst said, referring to the education groups. “I don’t believe they’re right. I believe it belongs to families.”

Ryan Spoon, who sat on Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s anti-critical race theory task force over the summer, argued for private competition in education.

“Any organization that operates as a legalized monopoly is operating in an unhealthy state. That is both harmful to itself and to those it serves,” Spoon said.

Spoon spearheaded the task force’s adoption of a pro-school choice recommendation to the Legislature, which included an endorsement of education savings accounts.

While most testimony focused on whether the state should fund private school education, IEA Executive Director Paul Stark brought another concern. He said the bill’s written so that public schools would still have to provide special education supports to students who aren’t enrolled in public schools, but the schools wouldn’t be compensated. Stark also said there’s “a real separation of church and state problem” with the bill since most Idaho private schools are religious.

Reps. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, and Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, brought the bill forward earlier this month, dubbing the proposed accounts the “Hope and Opportunity Scholarship Program.”

In addition to private school costs, families could use their education savings accounts on a variety of education-related expenses, ranging from private tutoring to laptops.

To be eligible for the Hope and Opportunity Scholarship, families would have to earn below 250% of the income cap for free-and-reduced lunch, a common measure of student poverty. That would make upwards of 65% of Idaho families eligible, per EdChoice’s estimate.

Though House Education dedicated its full two-hour meeting to hearing public testimony, not all who signed up to speak on the bill had the chance, said Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls. They’ll be able to submit written comments to the committee, but no more live testimony will be taken, Clow said.

The committee now plans to debate on the bill at a future meeting, which could end in a vote to send the bill to the House floor.

Curriculum adoption committee bill clears House

A split House passed a bill that would require school districts to organize curriculum adoption committees.

The 12-member committees would have to be comprised of six parents, three teachers, one administrator, one school board member and one community member. They’d strictly serve in an advisory role, and school boards would continue to have the final say over curriculum.

“I think this is a great idea,” Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, told the House floor. “There’s a lot of concern about curriculum in our schools as far as people maybe wanting to watch for (critical race theory), or materials they find objectionable.”

Although schools already have similar committees in place, some school officials opposed the bill in committee, arguing that fielding a 12-member group of volunteers could prove too difficult for rural districts.

“I just think we have again overstepped our bounds in demanding that 12 people be on this committee,” said Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding.

House Bill 650 passed 45-23.

Levy transparency bill sails through House

A bill that would urge greater transparency in school supplemental levy elections and spending cleared the House with no debate.

House Bill 653 would:

  • Require school districts to disclose on the ballot how they’ll spend supplemental levy dollars when asking voters for property taxes.
  • Spend dollars on planned expenses, within 10% of the amount originally budgeted.
  • Annually post supplemental levy expenditures online

Only Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, voted against the bill. It now heads to the Senate for a potential committee hearing.

Senate passes midyear K-12 budget bill

A midyear spending bill is headed to Gov. Brad Little’s desk.

The big-ticket item in House Bill 634 is $74 million in federal money for school nutrition programs — covering the increase cost of free meal programs and increased costs due to supply chain issues. HB 634 also puts another $25.6 million into covering increased teacher salary career ladder costs, and $1.6 million to cover enrollment growth at the Idaho Digital Learning Academy.

The money for the career ladder and IDLA would come from state general funds.

The budget passed 32-1, with only Sen. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, in opposition.

On Monday morning, the Senate also unanimously passed two changes to the state’s Armed Forces and Public Safety Officer Scholarship:

House Bill 461 would make the scholarship available to the children and spouses of Idahoans who die in military training. House Bill 506 makes a technical fix in the way the state defines disabled veterans.

Both of these bills also go to Little’s desk.

‘Vaccine passport’ ban heads to House floor

A rewritten bill banning so-called “vaccine passports” is headed to the House floor.

Under the new legislation, no one would be required to produce proof of a vaccine or a negative COVID-19 test in order to receive state services, work for a state agency or enter a state-owned venue, with some exceptions.

The bill applies to state government and state agencies, including colleges and universities. It doesn’t apply to K-12 school district vaccination requirements.

The new bill is a reboot of House Bill 604, a vaccine passport ban introduced earlier this month. Among the revisions: The new bill would apply only to coronavirus, and not to any future diseases.

The House State Affairs Committee took the unusual step Monday of killing HB 604 and sending Meridian Republican Rep. Jason Monks’ new bill straight to the House floor. The bill, which does not yet have a number, could get a House vote later this week.

Senate Ed passes counselor bill, career ladder tweak

The Senate Education Committee quickly signed off on a pair of bills that unanimously passed the House Thursday:

House Bill 654 would allow licensed professional counselors and licensed clinical professional counselors to work as school counselors. Several people spoke in favor of the bill, including Bonneville School District Superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme, who said schools are facing more important, and more challenging, student mental health issues. The new counselors “will save our students’ lives,” he said.

House Bill 656 would clarify Idaho’s teacher salary career ladder. The bill is designed to make it easier for schools to place new teachers on the salary schedule — namely, those who move from out of state, a parochial school or an administrative position. “I see this as a fairness bill,” said Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, a co-sponsor.

With the committee votes, both bills could come up on the Senate floor later this week.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.  

Blake Jones

Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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