Statehouse roundup, 3.17.23: Private school tuition bill ends week in legislative limbo

A controversial private school tuition credits bill is on hold in the House — at least for now.

A day after Senate Bill 1161 passed the Senate, House Speaker Mike Moyle did not assign the proposal to any committee Friday, an unusual procedural move. The bill could still land in the House Education Committee, which voted down a school choice bill earlier this week, or Moyle could route the bill through a different committee.

House Speaker Mike Moyle

“We’re just going to let it set there until Monday,” Moyle, R-Star, said Friday, after the House wrapped up its final floor session of the week.

On Thursday, the Senate narrowly passed SB 1161, which would attach a private school tuition credit pilot to the Empowering Parents education microgrant program. The five-year pilot would put $12 million a year into tuition credits — enough to provide 2,000 households with $6,000 apiece.

Moyle said he wants to give bill sponsors and House Education members a chance to talk through the proposal.

But Moyle does have the option of bypassing House Education entirely. And curious bill assignments have been a recurring theme during the 2023 legislative session.

Earlier this session, Senate leaders routed Gov. Brad Little’s Idaho Launch postsecondary incentives bill through the Commerce and Human Resources Committee. Several senators mounted an unsuccessful objection, saying the Senate should have followed the House’s lead by running the bill through the more conservative Senate Education Committee.

Meanwhile, two ideas that died in House Education have come back to life in a more conservative House State Affairs. On Thursday, House State Affairs approved a reworked bill to prohibit obscene and “harmful materials” from public and school libraries. House State Affairs also passed a bill calling for the direct election of State Board of Education members; the House narrowly voted that bill down Wednesday.

The last-minute jockeying over SB 1161 comes as lawmakers try to wrap up their work for 2023. Legislative leaders hope to adjourn the session next Friday.

“We’ve got a little time here,” Moyle said.

Voter ID bill receives legal pushback

A law firm is suing Idaho’s secretary of state over a new law banning the use of student IDs at the polls.

Gov. Brad Little signed House Bill 124 into law Wednesday. The bill eliminates student ID cards as valid voter identification. In committee hearings, the bill sparked an outcry from Idaho students, who said the legislation would infringe upon their constitutional rights, and suppress young voices.

Secretary of State Phil McGrane backed the bill. He said the process for creating and distributing student IDs is neither uniform or secure across Idaho high schools, colleges and universities. Other forms of voter identification, including state IDs, concealed carry permits and passports are highly regulated and distributed with uniformity, McGrane said.

McGrane said the bill would secure Idaho elections, but admitted that no documented election fraud has been committed in Idaho through the use of student IDs.

Now, just two days after the governor signed the law, Elias Law Group is suing McGrane’s office on behalf of March for Our Lives Idaho (a student group against gun violence) and one Idaho student.

A Friday press release from the law firm says the bill is “discriminatory” and erodes the voting rights of young Idahoans in the face of increasing student activism around gun violence, climate change, reproductive rights and other political issues.

“Rather than engage with this growing youth activism, Idaho’s existing political power has tried to suppress it,” said Elias Law partner Elizabeth Frost.

Rosaura Albizo Barron, a Boise High School student who testified against HB 124 in committee, also spoke against the legislation in Friday’s press release.

“This bill not only threatens our constitutional right to vote, but the only legitimacy we have.”

Open-enrollment overhaul heads to House floor

A bill to rework the state’s open enrollment policy is headed to the House floor.

Senate Bill 1125 represents the first rewrite of open enrollment policy in 30 years. It would require districts to allow open enrollment; currently, the policy is optional. Districts would also be required to post their open enrollment policies online.

Districts would not be obligated to take all open-enrollment applicants, if schools don’t have the space or staff to accommodate additional students.

Supporters touted SB 1125 as a consensus bill. Its co-sponsor, Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, described the bill as an attempt to balance the interests of parents and growing school districts.

But Republicans and Democrats on the House Education Committee members raised several concerns with the bill. Several lawmakers focused on language that says a growing district “may not revoke” an open-enrollment transfer for a student that has enrolled in the district for two years or longer.

The committee passed the bill on a voice vote, with Boise Democrats Soñia Galaviz and Steve Berch voting no. The bill now heads to the House floor; it has already passed the Senate unanimously.

School choice advisory ballot bill gets a rewrite

A proposed school choice advisory ballot question is getting some end-of-session wordsmithing.

Rep. Lori McCann is proposing the following, reworked question: “Should the State of Idaho, the Idaho Legislature, or any state agency direct or appropriate public tax dollars to private K-12 schools, including private religious and for-profit schools?”

McCann, R-Lewiston, said she edited the question at the suggestion of fellow House Education member Rep. Barbara Ehardt. McCann’s original wording would have asked if the state should “divert” public money into private schools.

Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, told the committee she wanted another change, to simply ask voters if they supported using public dollars for education savings accounts.

McCann said she wanted wording to suggest school choice proposals could take several forms, not just ESAs.

If passed, the advisory question would appear on the November 2024 statewide ballot.

After brief discussion, and over objections from a few Republicans, House Education introduced the reworded proposal on a voice vote.

Teacher spending accounts bill advances

A bill seeking to offset teachers’ out-of-pocket costs easily cleared the Senate Friday morning.

Idaho teachers often pay out-of-pocket for educational materials, decorations, cleaning supplies, books and more. Some pay hundreds of dollars throughout the year, on top of what they fundraise.

Senate Bill 1153 would create a savings account program for Idaho teachers to offset those extraneous expenses. The accounts and expenses would be monitored by the State Department of Education through a third-party vendor. Bill co-sponsor Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, said teachers could also reimburse themselves for purchases made at garage sales, dollar stores, thrift stores and more.

The bill does not specify a dollar amount for the accounts — those appropriations are at the discretion of JFAC, Herndon said.

A certified teacher, Sen. Carrie Semmelroth, D-Boise, said the program will benefit educators. She reflected back to a similar program under former state superintendent Tom Luna. “It worked,” she said. Luna’s program was disbanded during the recession.

SB 1153 passed the Senate with a unanimous vote.


Kevin Richert and Sadie Dittenber

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