Statehouse roundup, 2.3.22: School employee health insurance boost heads to governor

The Idaho Senate has all but inked a bill moving toward providing K-12 school employees better health insurance at lower premiums.

The Senate Thursday easily passed House Bill 443 — which would create a fund to help districts and charters cover either the upfront costs of moving onto the state’s health insurance plan, or negotiate their own plans with private providers. The bill would cut a $20 million-a-year teacher “leadership premium” program, a tradeoff to free up funding for health insurance.

“It’s kind of bittersweet for me because I was involved in helping create the leadership premium legislation,” said former lawmaker Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, who’s substituting for Sen. Steve Bair this session. “But the money put forward into this insurance bill is a forward-looking piece.”

Eight senators from both sides of the aisle offered glowing reviews of the bill before it passed 32-3.

Senators, including David Nelson, D-Moscow, argued more “fully” funding education in this way could indirectly take the burden of funding schools off the shoulders of local taxpayers, who are regularly asked to support supplemental levies across the state.

Lori Den Hartog called HB 443 a “historic opportunity” to lower teachers’ health insurance premiums for themselves and their families.

“And I think this will really have a significant impact particularly for our rural districts who have tried to do what they can to pool their resources to try to increase their negotiating power,” said Den Hartog, R-Meridian.

Only Republicans Regina Bayer of Meridian, Christy Zito of Hammett and Steve Vick of Dalton Gardens opposed the bill, and none debated against it.

A first step: HB 443 is one piece of a three-part proposal Gov. Brad Little made last month to beef up school staff health insurance. The bill already sailed through the House, so Little just has to sign it to make it law.

A separate spending bill would funnel $75 million in one-time money into the new funding pot created by HB 443. This spending bill is necessary for HB 443 to “have any significance,” said Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle.

Another of Little’s proposals — putting $105 million annually toward school employee health insurance — would also have to clear the Legislature. This would bring the state’s current $8,400 per-employee spending on school staff insurance up to par with the $12,500 it shells out for other state employees.

Proposal to cut supplemental levies makes its debut

Later Thursday, Nelson unveiled a proposal to use state dollars to cut local school property tax levies.

His bill would create a new state discretionary fund for schools. Districts would have to use the first 75% of their payment to reduce or eliminate their supplemental levies. If districts have any leftover money, or if they have no supplemental levy on the books, they could use their state dollars as they wish.

Nelson’s bill doesn’t allocate any money. If it passes, lawmakers would have to pass a separate spending bill.

But if the state put $300 million into the fund, he said, the number of districts with a supplemental levy would drop from 89 to 44. And the state’s overall supplemental levy bill — now a record $218.2 million —  would fall to $77 million.

The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to print Nelson’s bill. But Chairman Steven Thayn was noncommittal, saying the proposal could “possibly” come back for a full hearing.

A few administrators could receive master educator premiums

A new bill would allow a small group of K-12 teachers-turned-administrators to receive premiums awarded to veteran teachers.

Only teachers are eligible for the state’s master educator premium program. And under the current system, awardees must continue working as Idaho public school teachers for three years to receive the three annual $4,000 payments granted to them through the program.

That’s stopped “more than 23” teachers who were promoted to administrative posts after being awarded the premiums from receiving payments, House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow said Thursday. Because administrators aren’t eligible for the premiums, some of these principals and vice principals only received one or two payments, despite expecting three.

Clow, R-Twin Falls, introduced a proposal Thursday to change that, and House Education voted unanimously to print it. The bill would send money already budgeted for these awardees’ premiums out to them. The change would be retroactive, so educators who were awarded premiums dating back to the summer of 2020 would be eligible for the extra payouts.

If the bill passes, it wouldn’t create an ongoing financial commitment for the state. The premium program sunsets in 2024, and the last class of awardees was announced last summer.

The bill can now receive a full hearing from the committee.

The IRI and learning loss

Last year’s K-3 reading scores showed a decline coinciding with the pandemic, but they may not reflect the magnitude of learning loss among some vulnerable groups.

Disproportionately lower enrollment numbers suggest economically disadvantaged students were more likely to leave the school system when the pandemic hit, and those same students tend to perform below average on the Idaho Reading Indicator, said Boise State University researcher Matthew May.

That could mean the proficiency drop in pandemic IRI scores — which gauge student literacy — understates the extent to which coronavirus-induced disruptions hurt early child literacy.

“The learning loss among this particular population could be greater as many students not enrolled may have lost a year of education,” May told the House Education Committee Thursday while presenting a report on IRI scores.

The pandemic may have also exacerbated the struggles for students experiencing homelessness, who similarly lag behind their peers in IRI proficiency, he said.

Despite pandemic challenges, researchers found the state’s early child literacy programs to be well designed.

But some lawmakers pressed to understand the statistical impact that investments in early literacy have had on student success as they weigh bankrolling Little’s recent request for an additional $47 million for early literacy programs like full-day kindergarten. And there’s some information that lawmakers still don’t have.

For example, researchers didn’t have the data needed to compare individual students’ improvements year-to-year, making it hard to separate an individual or school’s improvement from a district’s, May said.

And without the ability to compare schools with literacy programs and schools without them, Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls, said, “We have absolutely no way to see if the money we’ve spent has been effective.”

Rep. John McCrostie disagreed.

“There’s a lot of data that we have that indicates growth among cohorts … and we really don’t know what the effect of money that we allocated last year is going to have until we see the data next year. So, I think it’s a little premature to make definitive statements,” McCrostie, D-Garden City, said.

Said McAllister Hall, a BSU research associate, “We find that the program is designed fairly well. It’s very evident in student learning and student opportunities where the spending is going.”

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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