Statehouse roundup, 2.9.22: Mask mandate ban clears House committee

A bill banning local governments, including school districts and colleges, from imposing mask mandates passed the House State Affairs Committee along party lines Wednesday.

The bill is Rep. Karey Hanks’ third attempt to ban mask mandates in the last year. Her first mask mandate ban passed the House in April, but was never heard in the Senate. She introduced a second bill in November, but it never received a committee vote.

Favorable testimony included unsubstantiated or demonstrably false claims about masks and the coronavirus that received no direct pushback from the committee. Hanks, R-St. Anthony, claimed coronavirus vaccines have been shown not to prevent spread of the virus.

And Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, doubled down on an argument Hanks made last week, nearly verbatim, saying Idahoans would wear masks if there were “people dying in the streets.”

Since March 2020, 4,497 Idahoans have died from COVID-19, according to the Department of Health and Welfare — or roughly one of every 400 residents of the state.

Meridian psychologist Lynn Laird said, “I’ve heard — I haven’t dug into it — but the younger kids who have grown up through this have lost an average of 20 IQ points. And that is devastating. And I would say that a big piece of that is likely because of masks. Because children need to see faces in order to learn and grow.”

Lorna Mitson claimed that her daughter’s “chronic headaches became chronic migraines due to … mask wearing requirements. And so far, the associated medical costs have surpassed the $1,000 mark.”

Laird and Mitson both have ties to another hot-button issue in conservative education circles: alleged leftist indoctrination. Laird testified in front of Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s indoctrination task force over the summer, and Mitson joined a connected search for leftist curricula at the Boise School District.

Laird also testified in favor of Hanks’ inaugural bid to ban mask mandates almost a year ago.

One school official pushed back before the committee’s two Democrats, Boise Reps. Chris Mathias and John Gannon, voted against sending the bill to the House floor.

“You’re tying our hands, College of Eastern Idaho trustee Stephanie Mickelson told lawmakers.

“Government closest to the people is best in the state of Idaho,” Mickelson said. “The state is trying to make rules that would then prohibit people on the local level from doing what they feel is best for their people.”

The coronavirus omicron variant has fueled record Idaho case numbers, although the surge has apparently reached a peak in Idaho. Meanwhile, mask mandates in K-12 schools are few and far between.

The Boise School District is considering lifting its mandate, as EdNews reported and the West Ada and Nampa districts don’t have mandates in place.

Senate Education churns through a bevy of bills

The Senate Education Committee quickly worked through a group of new bills — voting to introduce them without discussion.

Charter school teachers. One bill would allow charter schools to create their own “school-specific teaching certificate.”

The certificates could be transferred to another charter school, if that school wants to hire a specific teacher, but the certificates would not apply to traditional public schools.

Teachers holding a charter school certificate would still need to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Career-technical instructors would need a bachelor’s degree or meet state CTE instruction guidelines.

Rural teacher incentives. Two Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking of Boise and Rep. Sally Toone of Gooding, are making another bid to create a program to reward teachers who work in high-need or rural schools.

Incentives would start at $1,500 the first year and climb to $4,500 by the fourth year, for a total of $12,000. Teachers would be able to use the money to pay off student loans or pursue an advanced degree.

It would be up to legislative budget-writers to fund the program — and their decisions would dictate the scope and the cost of the program. In their bill’s statement of purpose, Ward-Engelking and Toone say the state could limit its cost by capping enrollment at 250 or 500 teachers per year.

Civics standards. A Senate resolution would move the state’s academic standards for civics instruction out of the existing social studies standards and into a standalone category.

Moving the civics standards into a “separate, nice, neat little package” would improve transparency, and underscore the state’s commitment to teaching civic engagement, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra told the committee.

The charter school certificate and rural teacher incentives bills could come back to Senate Education for a full hearing. The civics standards resolution will go to the Senate floor for a vote.

CTE in line for short-term budget boost

More than 117,000 high school students were enrolled in Idaho’s career-technical programs in 2021 — a 12% increase over three years.

And the state could soon put additional money into its Division of Career-Technical Education, in order to serve more high school students.

Gov. Brad Little wants to put another $10 million into CTE for the current budget year, which ends June 30. The main goal is to help school districts move more quickly, and start up programs that meet local work force needs, state CTE administrator Clay Long told legislative budget-writers Wednesday.

While much of the $10 million would go into high school programs, $1.5 million would go into CTE programs at Idaho State University, Lewis-Clark State College and the state’s four community colleges, and $1.5 million would go into a CTE data management system.

While CTE could receive a one-time $10 million cash infusion this year, Little has requested a hold-the-line budget for the division for 2022-23 — about $72.1 million, most of which is sent back to high schools and colleges for course offerings.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee discussed the CTE budget requests briefly Wednesday morning. The committee will begin writing state budget bills later this month.

Scholarship eligibility tweaks pass House

Two bills modifying the state’s full-ride Armed Forces Scholarship passed the House unanimously Wednesday.

One would extend eligibility to the children of three military pilots who died in a Black Hawk crash during a training exercise last year. The scholarship is available to children and spouses of military and public safety officers who were killed or permanently and totally disabled in the line of duty. Currently, only children and spouses of troops killed in combat can apply; House Bill 461 would open it up to dependents of troops harmed in training exercises.

The other, House Bill 506, would make a pair of technical changes to the scholarship, including how it defines permanent and total disability.

Both bills now head to the Senate for potential committee hearings.

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