Statehouse roundup, 3.14.22: Full-day kindergarten bill heads to House for its last test

A bill dealing with expanded early literacy programs and full-day kindergarten passed perhaps its toughest legislative test so far Monday.

With some enthusiasm, and some reluctance, the House Education Committee sent Senate Bill 1373 to the House floor on a 9-5 vote.

The bill would change the way state early literacy money is divided up, awarding more to schools whose students improve on a reading test year-to-year or reach “proficiency.” But critical committee members used the vote and debate to air their concerns with a companion spending bill, which would put an additional $46.7 million a year into early literacy, money that could be used for optional full-day kindergarten programs.

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, like her fellow dissenters, questioned how schools would be held accountable for boosting childhood literacy with more funding.

“That seems to be the overriding question,” said, Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, before voting against it.

Others were lukewarm on the bill.

Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls, balked at encouraging a “headlong rush” toward expanded full-day kindergarten with more funding, saying he’s not convinced the programs will produce longtime reading gains.

“It’s called first grade for a reason,” Marshall said, saying he and his peers were “actually pretty successful” without attending any kindergarten. But he reluctantly voted for the bill.

“It appears to me that we’re bent on throwing more money into the literacy pot regardless. So, we just as well (should) have a bill like this to try and change the formula of how the money is distributed.”

Under the current system, $26 million is funneled to schools for early literacy, based on the number of struggling readers who score low on the Idaho Reading Indicator. The new bill would change that, so half of funding is based on student enrollment numbers, and half is based on student improvement and proficiency on the IRI.

Proponents said the new structure would force accountability, while education groups have previously worried it will deepen inequities, by diverting money away from low-performing schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students.

Added funding would advance full-day kindergarten in two respects. First, districts would have the option of establishing full-day kindergarten programs — they receive funding for half-day kindergarten now — or they could use money on other reading interventions. Second, students would have the option of attending full-day kindergarten.

“This bill really is about choice in education,” said Rep. Codi Galloway, R-Boise. “And just like I will ask people to support an educational savings account because that’s good for some children, I’m going to ask you to support this bill because kindergarten is good for some children.”

Opposition extended beyond criticizing that choice of kindergarten. Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, said she wouldn’t support the proposal without a provision that would stop schools from paying for full-day kindergarten out of property tax levies. The bill has no such regulation built into it.

But few opposed the funding model change that’s central to SB 1373. Even though education stakeholders and senators expressed concerns about the switch at a committee hearing across the rotunda, representatives from the Idaho Education Association, Idaho School Boards Association and State Department of Education echoed their support for the bill Monday.

After close to two hours of testimony and debate, Republican Reps. Ehardt, Moon, Ron Mendive of Coeur d’Alene, Tony Wisniewski of Post Falls, and Judy Boyle of Midvale opposed the bill. Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, was absent.

Now, the bill only needs to pass the House in order to go to Gov. Brad Little, who supports it.

The separate appropriations bill must pass the House and Senate.

Senate Ed kills charter loan fund, passes WWAMI bills

Meeting for perhaps the last time this year, the Senate Education Committee killed a House-passed bill to create a charter school revolving loan fund.

Supporters hoped to create $50 million fund with a one-time infusion of state dollars. Startup charters would have been allowed to borrow up to $2.5 million. The loan program would keep more state dollars in charter school classrooms, helping new schools avoid taking out “predatory loans” from out-of-state lenders, said Emily McClure, a lobbyist with the Idaho Charter School Network.

But while House Bill 545 sailed through the House last month with only one dissenting vote, it was a different story in the Senate.

First, Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa, took the unusual step of testifying against the bill. Agenbroad, a banker, said he supported charter schools, but did not want to see the state assume the role of “lender of last resort.”

Several committee members said they were uneasy about the risk, and the fairness of leaving unaddressed the needs of traditional public schools.

Senators voted 6-3 to hold the bill in committee, effectively killing it for the session. Chairman Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, and Republicans Kevin Cook of Idaho Falls and Lori Den Hartog of Meridian pushed to pass the bill and send it to the Senate, but were outvoted.

In other Senate Education news:

WWAMI proposals pass. The committee signed off on two bills pertaining to the Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho medical school partnership. One would require Idaho WWAMI students to practice in the state for four years after graduating from the University of Washington medical school, or return the state subsidies they had received for their degree. The second is a nonbinding resolution urging the state to pursue an additional 10 WWAMI seats.

Idaho now pays for 40 WWAMI seats per year, at an annual cost of $6.9 million. About half of WWAMI’s Idaho graduates return to their home state, and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said House Bill 718 should help improve this percentage.

Both proposals now go to the Senate floor. Both have passed the House.

Mask opt-out bill likely dead. Senate Education might not meet again this session, Thayn said Monday. And whether the committee meets again this session, it probably won’t take up a mask opt-out bill.

Last week, the House passed House Bill 734 on nearly a party-line vote. The bill would allow parents to turn in a mask opt-out statement to schools, citing medical, religious or personal concerns.

Thayn said he supports the bill, but the bill has little support on the committee, so it probably won’t get a vote.

House passes community college budget

After a couple of testy spending debates Monday morning, the House made short work of the community college budget.

The proposed budget would put $56.9 million of general fund tax money into the community college system — an increase of $5.1 million.

But nearly all of that increase — $4.6 million — would cover a 5% pay raise. Covering that raise at the state level should ease some of the pressure on local property taxes, said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, a co-sponsor of House Bill 759.

The state’s four two-year colleges receive their funding through a patchwork of sources: state tax dollars, local property taxes and student tuition and fees.

Without debate, HB 759 passed 60-8, with opposition from Republican Reps. Ben Adams, Nampa; Vito Barbieri, Dalton Gardens; Chad Christensen, Ammon; Priscilla Giddings, White Bird; Karey Hanks, St. Anthony; Dorothy Moon, Stanley; Tammy Nichols, Middleton; and Heather Scott, Blanchard.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

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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