Statehouse roundup, 3.22.22: Empowering Parents grants budget hits a roadblock

(UPDATED, 2:46 p.m., with JFAC action on the Empowering Parents grants budget.)

The House abruptly voted down a State Board of Education budget Tuesday morning, as lawmakers figure out how to run a $50 million family grant program.

The Empowering Parents grants program itself probably isn’t in jeopardy, despite Tuesday’s House vote. Lawmakers have already approved Gov. Brad Little’s grants proposal, designed to help families pay for home education needs, from internet and laptops to physical therapy or occupational therapy. The policy-setting measure, Senate Bill 1255, passed the Legislature with overwhelming, bipartisan support, and Little signed it into law three weeks ago.

With the policy in place, the Legislature now has to work out the funding mechanics. A new budget bill is already in the works, just hours after the first version, Senate Bill 1390, ran aground on the House floor Tuesday.

SB 1390 called for using $50 million of federal coronavirus aid to pay for the grant program. But close to $1.2 million of that $50 million would go towards administering the program.

That was a departure from SB 1255, which called for covering the administrative costs from the state general fund — leaving the entire $50 million for grants of up to $1,000 per student or $3,000 per household.

Siphoning $1.2 million from the $50 million could jeopardize hundreds of student or family grants.

This question resurfaced, briefly, when the House took up SB 1390.

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, was the lone House member who debated SB 1390. She said she couldn’t support the grant program until the state funds the administrative costs and leaves the $50 million grant money intact.

She voted against SB 1390, as did the majority of the House. The bill failed on a 24-46 vote.

That vote kicked the issue back to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

JFAC met Tuesday afternoon to take up a number of last-minute spending issues — including the budget for the Empowering Parents grants program.

JFAC agreed on a new bill, one that uses additional federal aid to cover the administrative costs. It passed on a 16-3 vote, over the objections of three House Republicans: Caroline Nilsson Troy of Genesee, Scott Syme of Wilder and Ron Nate of Rexburg.

That represented a departure. Only a month ago, a divided JFAC voted to put $50 million into the program, with no extra funding for administrative costs — over the objections of Horman and several other committee members.

The snag over the Empowering Parents program, and the State Board’s budget bill, creates another hiccup as the Legislature hopes to wrap up its work this week. Lawmakers must pass budget bills for all agencies before they can adjourn. The new budget bill will now need to pass the House and the Senate.

The Legislature had been making progress on budget bills before the State Board budget failed. On Monday, the House passed six public school budget bills and the Senate passed a higher education budget. The House passed the state’s largest single budget Tuesday morning: a Medicaid budget allocating $4 billion of state and federal money.

Other education-related budgets pass

While the Empowering Parents grants budget ran into trouble Tuesday, two education-related budgets passed the House.

An office budget for the State Department of Education passed on a 51-18 vote. It includes $51.9 million of state and federal funding, and much of the budget’s 30% increase comes from federal coronavirus aid.

The Permanent Building Fund’s budget passed by a 47-23 margin. It’s a $196.8 million budget, a whopping increase from $35 million. The increase stems from a one-time infusion of $150 million from the state budget surplus, money that would go toward addressing Idaho’s deferred maintenance backlog.

The state’s buildings and campus facilities need an estimated $900 million of maintenance.

Both of these budgets go to the Senate.

Other last-minute education budgets take shape

After reworking the budget for the Empowering Parents grants budget, JFAC worked on a couple of other education budgets.

In Statehouse jargon, the proposals are “trailer” spending bills. They fund programs that have passed this session — or are likely to become law.

All of the “trailer” spending bills now have to pass both houses.

A few highlights:

Enrollment-based funding. JFAC agreed to put another $23.5 million into the K-12 budget, covering a shift from attendance-based funding to an enrollment-based model. Both houses have passed a bill keeping the enrollment-based model in place for the next two years — maintaining a model adopted during the pandemic.

Teacher incentives. JFAC voted to put $750,000 into a new incentive program for teachers who stay in rural or high-poverty school districts. This would provide $1,500 incentives for 500 teachers, to help offset student loan debt or the cost of a master’s degree.

The incentives would grow to $4,500 if a teacher stays in a district for four years — and the cost of the program could increase to more than $4 million in Year Four.

The shift in standards. JFAC approved $375,000 to allow the State Department of Education to review Idaho’s standardized test, to see how it aligns with new state standards in math, science and English language arts. This doesn’t cover all the costs. In time, the state might need to spend an estimated $20 million to $50 million to revamp its Idaho Standards Achievement Test.

All-day kindergarten bill heads to Senate

The Senate Education Committee took all of two minutes to advance a rewritten early literacy bill Tuesday afternoon.

With little discussion, Senate Education unanimously sent House Bill 790 to the Senate floor on a voice vote. The bill would change how K-3 literacy money is divided up between schools and require school districts to disclose how they will spend supplemental levies.

The bill would allocate half of literacy funds based on K-3 student enrollment and would award the other half to schools based on how many of their students are reading at grade level or improving year to year on the Idaho Reading Indicator. Currently, more money goes to schools with a high share of readers struggling to make progress.

The Legislature is considering growing the state’s annual early literacy spending from $26 million to $72 million. Districts could spend added money on optional full-day kindergarten programs; the state only pays for half-day.

Only Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking debated the bill, reiterating that she’d like to see the Legislature come back to the issue in the future.

“I think we may still have a problem in the state with uniformity if we have some schools choose to do full-day optional kindergarten and some do not,” said Ward-Engelking, D-Boise. “I’m hoping we’ll see how this looks and see where we go from here, but not rule out the possibility that we still need to offer that full-day optional kindergarten to everyone.”

The House passed HB 790 Monday after it was quickly introduced Friday. It now heads to the Senate floor.

House OKs tweaks to two bills

Before wrapping its business for the day, the House passed two bills with Senate amendments.

Curriculum adoption committees. A House bill requiring school districts to establish 12-member committees to advise the district board on curriculum adoption got a tweak. The amendment kept a requirement that half of committee members be parents, but lifted the mandate that committees have at least a dozen members. After concurring in the amendment, the House again passed the bill Tuesday.

School funding. The House also agreed on an edited bill that would continue funding Idaho schools based on their total enrollment rather than their average daily attendance through 2024. The amendment was a technical fix.

Idaho Education News reporter Blake Jones contributed to this report.

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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