Statehouse roundup, 3.13.19: Senate passes K-12 budgets; controversial scholarship tax credit bill resurfaces

The Idaho Senate took a very long time to quickly approve the 2019-20 K-12 public school budgets Wednesday.

Without any debate, the Senate unanimously approved all seven K-12 public school budgets. In the process, senators approved nearly $50 million to fully fund the final year of educator raises under the career ladder salary law. Overall, the budgets increase school funding by $109 million, a 6.1 percent increase.

Overall, senators spent less than an hour passing the seven budgets, and none of the budgets were in any danger of failing. But senators split the budget work between two separate floor sessions, separated by a lunch break, a long afternoon recess and a detour that saw legislators working on unrelated resolutions and memorials before finally returning to the school budgets.

More than four hours passed between the first vote and the final vote.

Perhaps it was the long break that led to Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin to initially overlook one of the bills as she presided over the Senate’s afternoon session. Order was soon restored and all budgets were accounted for.

Budget highlights include:

  • $49.7 million to pay for the fifth and final year of the career ladder.
  • $14.6 million in new funding for discretionary spending for school districts, a pool of money sometimes referred to as discretionary spending. Of that, about $7.5 million would be available to help schools pay for health care costs.
  • $13.1 million in new funding to expand Idaho’s K-3 literacy initiative, one of the top education priorities for Gov. Brad Little.
  • $7.3 million to give school administrators a 3 percent raise.
  • $7.2 million to pay for financial incentives known as master educator premiums, which are designed to reward Idaho’s most effective veteran educators.

The House already comfortably approved the public school budgets last week. They now head to Little’s desk, where they are expected to be signed into law.

Education spending is Idaho’s largest expense each year and will account for about 49 percent of all general fund spending next year.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is likely to reconvene to pass a “trailer bill” to fund for Little’s proposal to increase minimum teacher salaries to $40,000 over the next two years. Little’s minimum teacher bill, which has also passed the House and Senate, is expected to cost $3.8 million next year.

In a separate vote, the Senate also approved the 2019-20 STEM Action Center budget on a 29-4 vote.

Scholarship tax credit

A controversial education proposal from 2018 resurfaced, as the 2019 Legislature nears adjournment.

Rep. John Vander Woude unveiled a bill to create a scholarship fund to help students move from public schools to private schools — and offer state tax credits to fund donors.

The bill’s objectives are unchanged from a year ago. Vander Woude, R-Nampa, says the scholarships would go to students in poverty, special-needs or at-risk students and children of active members of the military. The funding structure is also unchanged; the state would encourage scholarship donations by offering a 50 percent tax credit.

Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa

And Vander Woude says the bill would save the state money — even after handing out $15 million a year in tax credits. By moving an estimated 6,900 students out of public schools, the state could save money on K-12 programs. The net savings, he says, could come to $21.6 million per year.

But the backlash against the Guided Education Management, or GEM, scholarship doesn’t seem likely to change. A year ago, the bill drew opposition from broad spectrum of education groups — from the State Board of Education to the Idaho School Boards Association to the Idaho Education Association. State superintendent Sherri Ybarra also opposed the bill.

Critics suggested the 2018 bill was a backdoor version of a voucher program, forbidden under the Idaho Constitution. Vander Woude disputed that claim.

The 2018 bill passed the House but was held in the Senate.

Without debate, the House Revenue and Taxation Committee introduced Vander Woude’s bill, which means it could come back for a full public hearing at a later date. But as the legislative session heads into its final weeks, the bill’s prospects would appear to be uncertain.

Mastery education

In other action Wednesday, the House Education Committee advanced Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra’s bill to expand Idaho’s mastery-based education network.

Senate Bill 1059 would lift the cap of the number of schools and charters that participate in the Idaho Mastery Education Network, which currently features 19 pilot programs.

Mastery occurs when students move on in school once they command a concept, as opposed to spending a semester or year in a given class or grade level. Mastery was included in the recommendations issued in 2013 by former Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education.

In her 2019-20 budget request, Ybarra had asked for $1.4 million in new funding to facilitate the expansion of the mastery program. But the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee didn’t approve Ybarra’s funding request when it wrote the public school budgets on Feb. 18. In the fiscal note attached to her bill, Ybarra didn’t ask for the $1.4 million, but said the State Department of Education will expand the mastery-based network “as appropriated funds allow.”

“The purpose of the legislation also allows any district or charter to join the network, even if they are not selected to receive startup funding,” said Marilyn Whitney, Ybarra’s deputy superintendent for policy and communications.

SB 1059 heads next to the House with a recommendation it passes. It already passed the Senate 34-0 on Feb. 27.

Career technical training

House Education also advanced a bill to allow students to use advanced opportunities funds for career technical education workforce training, even if such courses aren’t offered in their high school.

If passed into law, Senate Bill 1105 would allow students to use their $4,125 advanced opportunities allowance for career technical education workforce training courses. For example, high school students could use this money to participate in an industry apprenticeship program.

Weiser Superintendent Wil Overgaard traveled to the Statehouse on Wednesday to offer his support for the bill.

Overgaard said a four-year degree isn’t an option for all Weiser students, especially for those where cost would be a barrier. But he said opportunities for students to earn trade skills or pursue a journeyman certificate would help them launch careers with high paying jobs. The program could also fill needs in the community for HVAC technicians, plumbers or electrical workers. (Click here to read more about Weiser’s HVAC apprenticeship.)

“We would love to have advanced opportunities funds to help students pursue college-level training that is required along with an apprenticeship program,” Overgaard said.

SB 1105 next heads to the House floor with a recommendation it passes. It previously passed the Senate 35-0 on Feb. 25.

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