Statehouse roundup, 3.2.22: JFAC agrees on a higher ed budget, but just barely

Seeking a budget balance — and trying to thread a political needle — a deeply divided Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved a higher education spending proposal.

Now the budget will have to pass the House and the Senate. And JFAC’s tense budget discussions Wednesday morning suggest the fight is just getting started.

The bottom line: JFAC approved what could be a historic budget for higher ed. The budget would provide more than $338 million of general fund tax dollars to Idaho’s four four-year institutions. That’s an increase of nearly $25 million, likely the largest single-year boost in state history.

The committee passed the budget, but just barely, after considerable pushback.

First came resistance from the right wing.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, proposed a scaled-back budget, earmarking $325.9 million from the general fund. He spent much of his time explaining more than $1.3 million of his cuts, targeting diversity and inclusion programs at Boise State University, the University of Idaho and Idaho State University.

Even though the 2021 Legislature passed a law aimed at stopping critical race theory, Nate said, the universities have continued to funnel money into programs that support the hallmarks of CRT.

“They are taking their eye off the ball,” Nate said. “We should focus on the excellence of higher education rather than indoctrination.”

Nate tried to walk through what he called “pages of evidence” of diversity and inclusion programs, outlining programs and staff salaries used to support CRT. All four committee Democrats took turns objecting to Nate’s debate — which highlighted, but did not identify by name, university staff assigned to diversity and inclusion programs.

The pushback was bipartisan. Rep. Scott Syme, R-Wilder, questioned why universities would want to avoid teaching about the diverse nature of society. “It just doesn’t feel good when we start going down that road.”

JFAC rejected Nate’s motion on a 2-17 vote, with only Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, voting with him. But in the past two legislative sessions, House conservatives have voted down higher education budget proposals — voicing objections over campus politics, and sending JFAC back to the drawing board.

After voting down Nate’s version of the budget, JFAC turned its attention to another spending plan.

Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, and Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Troy, pushed for a $339.6 million budget. They said they were trying to fully fund needs on the campuses — such as “occupancy costs,” the price of moving into new buildings — without raiding budget reserves.

“There continue to be some holes in the budget that need to be paid attention to,” Troy said.

Their proposal failed, on a narrow 9-10 vote.

Then, JFAC turned to one more budget.

Supporters of the $338 million budget alternative offered several arguments.

  • They defended their move to use $4 million from higher education’s rainy-day fund to help Boise State address its unique enrollment growth.
  • Since their budget fully funded Gov. Brad Little’s request for 5% campus pay raises, the four-year schools wouldn’t have to use student tuition and fees to pick up the slack. They pointed to a letter Wednesday from State Board of Education President Kurt Liebich, which contained an assurance from the schools’ four presidents: If lawmakers approved the proposed budget, they said, the schools would be able to freeze in-state, undergraduate tuition for a third consecutive year.
  • Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, tried to appeal to JFAC members’ pragmatism. He said the bipartisan group that drew up the $338 million plan tried to come up with something that could pass the House and the Senate.

Their version did pass in the committee on an 11-8 vote, getting narrow, majority support from both House members and senators.

But that’s just the first step in passing a higher ed budget — and sending it to Little’s desk.

Little, lawmakers ‘getting awful close’ to consensus on all-day K

Gov. Brad Little Wednesday said he and lawmakers are “getting awful close to a pretty good consensus” on a bill to fund full-day kindergarten.

What will that consensus look like?

“It’s a surprise,” Little quipped in response to a question at a virtual press event. “It’s not quite finalized, but we’re really down to some details.”

Little has been discussing the issue with legislative colleagues, he said, including Tuesday night before legislators took in Boise State University’s men’s basketball win over University of Nevada, Reno.

Currently, the state only funds half-day kindergarten programs. Many school districts find ways to fund full-day programs, whether through supplemental levies or fees, and a bipartisan coalition in the Statehouse conceptually support covering the rest of the costs.

A handful of competing proposals to fund full-day kindergarten have emerged in the Legislature this session, but no bill has gotten a full committee hearing. And the proposal Little made during his State of the State address in January – to include funding for optional full-day kindergarten in flexible early literacy funds – hasn’t translated into concrete legislation.

Here’s a deeper look at the proposals that are on the table, and the path forward.

House passes trustee recall election bill

The House passed a bill designed to make sure voters have the chance to replace recalled school trustees.

House Bill 671 would leave a board position vacant, if a trustee is recalled or resigns in the midst of a recall election. Such a vacancy would be filled at the next regularly scheduled election date.

Citing frequent recalls and trustee appointments in the West Ada School District, co-sponsor Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, described the bill as an attempt to make sure parents have “a voice and a vote” in school board replacements.

The bill passed 54-15, and now goes to the Senate. A similar bill stalled in the Senate in 2021, after passing in the House.

Senate gives nod to non-certified educators teaching in charters

A bill that would allow individuals who aren’t certified teachers to teach in charter schools passed the Senate Wednesday.

The amended Senate Bill 1291 would allow charters to request new charter-specific teaching certificates for individuals they think are equipped to teach from the State Board of Education. These teachers would have to have a bachelor’s degree unless they’re a career-technical education teacher, in which case they’d have to meet other, existing state requirements.

Proponents said the bill would ease teacher shortages and allow charters to hire naturally talented teachers who fit their schools’ unique cultures.

“Educators are born, not made,” said bill sponsor Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville.

Democrats warned the approach misdiagnoses the root cause of teacher shortages and detrimentally lowers the standards for educators.

“We can see through the research and the data that the teacher shortage problem is really a teacher retention problem,” said Sen. Carrie Semmelroth, a Boise Democrat who holds a doctorate in special education. “I look forward to working with (Crabtree) on future legislation that shifts from this outdated focus on recruitment, to focus on what the research and data tell us that we need to be focusing on: retention …”

Meridian Republican Rep. Lori Den Hartog contended that the bill puts trust in charter school administrators to make smart hiring decisions and pushes back against legislative attempts at “micromanaging” schools.

“This … is really all about that local control for administrators,” Den Hartog said.

But Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said the bill is “demoralizing” to certified teachers, signaling that “anyone without the necessary training can teach,” and questioned whether charter administrators who lack a background in education are equipped to hire untrained educators.

SB 1291 would have also required that uncertified teachers receive mentoring from their schools, and individuals who are awarded the new charter-specific certificates could move between charter schools but wouldn’t be eligible to teach in traditional public schools.

A similar bill that would have allowed rural schools — both charter and traditional — to hire non-certified teachers emerged last year but was killed in a Senate committee.

SB 1291 passed 28-7 Wednesday and now heads to the House for a potential committee hearing.

Bipartisan campus free speech bill heads to House floor

A bill that sponsoring Reps. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, and Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, say will protect free speech on college campuses passed the House Education Committee Wednesday.

House Bill 684 would require that colleges and universities:

  • Allow students, faculty and visitors to freely express their views on campus, whether inside or outside college buildings.
  • Post their plans to comply with the law online and send them to the Legislature and governor.
  • Send complaints of a violation of the free speech rights in the bill to the Legislature and governor.

The bill allows people who feel their free speech rights have been violated to sue for damages within a year of the alleged offense.

Only Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, opposed the bill on a voice vote, saying in an impassioned speech that he thought the bill is unnecessary, citing a dearth of free speech-related complaints at Idaho universities.

The bill now heads to the House floor.

House panel backs parents teaching driver’s ed

The House Transportation and Defense Committee passed a bill that would allow parents to teach their children how to drive in lieu of sending them to driver’s education classes.

Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, opposed House Bill 683, saying he’s worried that the bill doesn’t require that parents have any qualifications to be driving instructors.

But the committee passed it on a voice vote after multiple members gave the bill glowing reviews. They praised its capacity to help parents avoid expensive and hard-to-get-into driver’s ed programs, especially for rural students who may already know how to drive from growing up on farms but don’t live near a certified instructor.

The State Department of Education’s former driver’s education head Emily Kormylo testified that “we need more education for these new drivers, not less,” pointing to higher fatality rates in crashes on rural roads.

Two parents testified in favor of the bill, saying they’ve been financially burdened by driver’s education programs.

HB 683 now goes to the full House.

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