Statehouse roundup, 3.10.22: Senate OKs kindergarten bill; standards overhaul heads to Senate floor

The Idaho Senate quickly passed an all-day kindergarten bill Thursday, with some hesitance but little opposition.

Senate Bill 1373 is meant to clarify that schools can use early literacy funding to bankroll all-day kindergarten programs, as some districts already do. And it would complement a proposed $46 million hike in annual early literacy spending, which would vault the state’s contribution to $72 million.

SB 1373 also would begin sending more early literacy money to school districts and charter schools whose students either score “proficient” on the Idaho Reading Indicator or improve on the screener throughout the school year. That’s a change from the state’s current funding model, which gives more money to schools with a higher share of struggling readers.

“We were trying to target those funds to the students who needed it,” said Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian. “But what we have found in practice, is that … districts that are doing a really good job … are losing funding.”

The new funding model would carve up half of literacy funds based on school enrollments, and the other half based on IRI results. The switch continued to be the central concern for reluctant lawmakers as the Senate debated the matter Thursday, echoing policy arguments that jeopardized the bill’s fate in committee. But the bill eventually received bipartisan support.

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking voted for the bill but took issue with basing school funding on one “high-stakes” test.

“I’m thinking that we may be back here at some point revisiting this issue,” said Ward-Engelking, D-Boise.

And as stakeholders have weighed in on the bill this week, some have worried that offering less funding to underperforming schools will worsen inequities.

Bill sponsor and Senate Education Committee Chairman Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, told his committee that he’s committed to hearing more discussion on the funding method next year.

That — along with widespread support for an all-day kindergarten bill and a fast-approaching target end date for the legislative session — seemed to coalesce the support Thayn needed.

“I think this bill has got a few warts on it, but I’m gonna vote for it,” said Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow.

Nelson did just that, as Christy Zito, R-Hammett, and Regina Bayer, R-Meridian were the only senators on the losing side of a 31-2 vote. Neither dissenter argued against passing the bill.

SB 1373 now heads to the House for a potential committee hearing.

Senate Education signs off on new standards

Despite some unanswered questions about cost, the Senate Education Committee signed off on replacing Idaho academic standards.

Senators unanimously approved two companion proposals: House Bill 716, which would adopt newly written standards in English language arts, math and science; and House Concurrent Resolution 39, which would repeal the existing standards.

Academic standards establish guideposts that K-12 students are expected to meet. It’s then up to local schools to come up with curriculum and choose textbooks that align the standards. Nonetheless, standards have been a politically charged issue at the Statehouse for years. The English and math standards have come under fire due to their connection to the national Common Core movement. The science standards have drawn scrutiny because of their references to climate change.

Thursday’s Senate Education hearing focused less on the new standards themselves, and more on the price of making the switch.

HB 716 earmarks up to $375,000 to review the new standards — and how they align with the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, the state’s federally required student assessment. But that doesn’t cover the cost of revamping the ISAT, or replacing it entirely.

In 2018, when the state last updated its science standards, it cost about $9 million to revise the science ISAT, deputy state superintendent Marilyn Whitney told the committee. Based on that experience, and the process in other states that have moved off of Common Core, Whitney said it could cost $20 million to $54 million to rewrite the ISAT to match the new English, math and science standards.

House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow wasn’t so sure.

A co-sponsor of the standards proposals, Clow said the costs could end up on the low end of that spectrum — especially if the state keeps the ISAT, as is his preference.

“We want to take what we have and build from that,” said Clow, R-Twin Falls.

Because of the cost questions, the State Board of Education has remained neutral on the standards overhaul. The board is comfortable with the new standards, President Kurt Liebich said Thursday. But board members don’t feel like they know enough about the cost of the reworking Idaho’s assessment, the impact on local curriculum and the need for professional development to help teachers work under the new standards.

The new standards have been in the making for two years, with subcommittees of teachers, parents and lawmakers working on the rewrites.

The process seems to be built around building legislative consensus behind the standards, said Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle. But Woodward questioned what might happen in 2023, since a large number of first-year lawmakers are likely to take office.

“I think there is a potential to spend tens of millions of dollars and end up in the same spot,” Woodward said.

But in the end, Woodward approved both standards proposals. They both now go to the Senate floor.

Compromise dyslexia bill heads to Senate floor

Senate Education quickly approved a compromise bill to address dyslexia in schools.

House Bill 731 requires the State Department of Education to come up with a dyslexia screening strategy, starting in 2022-23. The SDE is authorized to hire a staffer, at a cost of $97,000 per year, to coordinate the state’s strategies for addressing dyslexia, a reading disorder affecting about 20% of Idaho students.

HB 731 is a compromise between an earlier, Senate-passed dyslexia bill and a competing proposal from the SDE. The new bill has passed the House, so if it passes the Senate, it goes to Gov. Brad Little’s desk.

CWI elections bill derailed

Senate Education killed a bill that would have revamped the College of Western Idaho’s trustee elections.

As it now stands, the five trustees represent different zones, but must run across all of Ada and Canyon counties. Under House Bill 738, these trustees would have run in their separate zones.

Senators raised several questions about the House-passed bill. Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, said she’d prefer to allow voters to cast a ballot in all trustee races.

A school bus speed boost keeps rolling

A proposal to allow school buses to legally travel 70 mph — a few notches up from the existing 65 mph limit — is on its way to the Senate floor for possible amendments

Bus driver and Rep. Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony, supported House Bill 571 at a Senate Transportation and Defense Committee meeting Tuesday, saying buses are put in unsafe positions as faster-traveling cars and semis try to travel around them. “I see this as a safety issue,” Hanks said.

At the same hearing, Nelson called for data to support Hanks’ point, citing a 2018 SDE position paper that said, “There is ample evidence that this differential in travel speeds does not present a safety risk to school buses or other vehicles” and that slower speeds reduce the severity of crashes.

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, called for a technical change to the bill — to place the speed limit increase in a different part of state law. On a voice vote, the committee sent the bill to the Senate’s amending order, where that could happen.

On the Senate floor, three education bills passed unanimously.

Counselor eligibility change. House Bill 654 would allow licensed professional counselors and licensed clinical professional counselors to work as school counselors.

Teacher pay tweak. House Bill 656 would allow teachers coming from out of state and administrators returning to teaching to be paid in line with their experience, placing them on the state’s career ladder the same way as other teachers.

Career exploration. Senate Bill 1374 calls for an eighth-grade career exploration course. Both House bills only need the governor’s signature to become law, while the career exploration bill must now snake its way through the House.

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