Statehouse roundup, 3.23.15: Teacher salaries, and more

With no debate whatsoever, the Idaho House overwhelmingly passed the $125 million teacher salary bill Monday.

DeMordaunt New
Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle

Lawmakers, education groups and teachers have spent weeks locked in a deep debate over teacher pay and accountability. But the career ladder bill passed easily, 62-8.

The career ladder would create two rungs of teacher compensation and outlines a five-year plan to increase state funding for salaries. The proposal is laden with financial incentives for teachers who continue their education and meet state and local benchmarks to become a master teacher.

Upon full implementation in 2019-20, teacher salaries would break down as follows:

  • Residency teachers in their first three years of service: $37,000 to $39,000.
  • Professional teachers with more experience: $42,500 to $50,000.

Current teachers with more than three years of experience would automatically enter the career ladder at the professional rung.

After being at the center of salary negotiations, House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt carried the bill on the House floor. He repeated concerns voiced across that Idaho is having a difficult time recruiting and retaining quality teachers.

“The objective here it to try to make our teacher salaries competitive, not only with other states, but with the markets around us,” DeMordaunt said.

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DeMordaunt introduced two earlier, failed versions of the career ladder before gaining the support needed to pass the bill out of his committee. A turning point appeared to occur last week after more revisions were made and leaders of the Idaho Education Association and some lawmakers voiced support for the plan as a flawed but important first step to attracting and retaining teachers.

The salary bill next heads to the Senate for consideration, and is likely to start in the Senate Education Committee. If it clears committee and the Senate, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is expected to resume work on next year’s school budget – with the career ladder salary increases factored in.

In other statehouse action from a busy Monday:

Common Core testing. Lawmakers and parents pushing to get Idaho students out of a controversial Common Core-aligned test received $3 million worth of bad news Monday.

Tim Corder, special assistant to Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, told the House Education Committee that the federal government has threatened to withhold 20 percent of all Title I funds from all of Idaho’s Title I schools if 95 percent of students do not complete the Idaho Standards Achievement Test by Smarter Balanced.

The potential funding penalty came to light during a discussion of writing the state’s waiver for the No Child Left Behind/Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Lawmakers have proposed several bills this session to pull Idaho out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium altogether or identify an alternative test.

State officials had previously told lawmakers the penalty could range anywhere from $620,000 to $245 million.

“Should you approve it as written, the consequence could be 20 percent or a $3 million payback,” said Corder, adding that money has already been distributed to schools.

Ybarra is in Washington, D.C., this week meeting with federal officials as part of the Council of Chief State School Officers. She and other state officials are writing another waiver for the federal education law, and Corder was seeking guidance and support from the Legislature.

The committee voted to introduce an amended version of a waiver Monday morning, one which Corder said would not jeopardize the $3 million in federal funding.

Dr. Geoff Thomas
Superintendent Geoffrey Thomas

Idaho educators are scheduled to begin administering the Smarter Balanced tests next week. Regardless of what happens with the waiver, millions of dollars in federal funding could be in jeopardy this year if 95 percent of the students do not complete the tests one way or another. On March 16, Madison School District Superintendent Geoffrey Thomas wrote a letter saying his district will not use the state-mandated SBAC tests at all this year. Instead, the eastern Idaho school district will use the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test in grades three through eight and 10.

Madison was the 13th largest of the state’s 115 school districts by enrollment last year, with nearly 5,200 students. If none of them take the test it could hamper the state’s ability to meet the 95 percent testing requirement — jeopardizing funding for school districts that had no say in Madison’s decision.

Ybarra said the state is obligated to administer the SBAC tests this year, as the state’s existing federal waiver requires.

Parental rights. The Senate passed a rewritten bill designed to reassert the rights of parents in education and health care decisions involving their children.

The rewritten House Bill 113 says in part, “Parents who have legal custody of any minor child or children have the fundamental right and duty to make decisions concerning their education.”The bill would give the state limited authority to interfere with the exercise of these rights — as long as there is a compelling reason for the state to act, and no less invasive method of asserting the state’s rights.

This language is designed to combat the U.S. Supreme Court’s “slow-motion process” of eroding parental rights, said Senate floor sponsor Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood.

Democrats argued that the bill was unnecessary, and would expose the state’s schools to undue legal risk. But the bill passed, 27-7, with all seven Democrats in opposition.

The amended bill must go back to the House for another vote. The original version passed on a narrow 37-31 vote.

Early childhood education. Taking care to avoid the word “preschool,” the House Education Committee debated an early childhood learning pilot project Monday.

Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, has been pushing for a such a program for two years now, but he let GOP Reps. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise, and Christy Perry, R-Nampa, handle the introductory hearing.

Under the kindergarten preparation program, as it is now called, the state would create an optional, three-year pilot program housed in five public schools as well as private day-care facilities that meet state certification guidelines. Parental involvement in the program is a hallmark of this year’s proposal.

In order for the program to move forward, 55 percent of the estimated $1.4 million cost would need to be raised through private grants, with the remainder due in state funding.

Perry said the kindergarten preparation program could be part of a “paradigm shift” of the Legislature moving from a reactive mode to a proactive mindset.

Past preschool and early childhood initiatives have failed after lawmakers and state officials argued that early learning should take place in the home and that the state should fix its K-12 education system before broadening its scope.

The bill was introduced on a voice vote, although several Republicans audibly opposed it. If the bill is to advance it will return to House Education for a full hearing. However, at this late stage of the session — with the workload transferring from committees to the House and Senate floor — it was unclear if the bill has life. Kloc pushed similar legislation last year that was introduced late, and then died without further consideration when the session adjourned.

Salamanders. Once given up for dead, the Idaho giant salamander is enjoying a second life in an eighth-grader’s quest to designate a new state amphibian.

For five years, Les Bois Junior High School student Ilah Hickman has been pushing for the state to designate the unique salamander as the state symbol, saying its name and habitat perfectly represent the Gem State.

On Monday, the House voted 51-17 to pass House Bill 1. It heads next to the Senate. Last year, Hickman’s salamander bill cleared the Senate but was not given a hearing in the House.

The House State Affairs Committee originally squashed the salamander bill on Jan. 19, but Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, led committee members into unexpectedly reversing their decision last Wednesday.

Bullying. The House passed anti-bullying legislation over the objections of Republican leadership.

The bill defines various forms of bullying and harassment, including cyberbullying, and states that school personnel are authorized to intervene and stop the abuse. It also outlines a series of potential consequences for violations, and is designed as a preventative measure, said sponsoring Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise.

“What this bill does is it will (give) some consistency to the bullying procedures and policies throughout the state, which does need to happen,” said Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth.

Republican Reps. Perry and Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, supported the bill after telling stories about how they removed children from school after they were continuously assaulted and bullied.

The bill passed 51-18, with Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, and Majority Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Nampa voting against it. The proposal next heads to the Senate for consideration.

Some opponents argued that school districts, not the state, should address the problem. Others who voted against it worried about consequences for bullies and those falsely accused of bullying.

Civics test. House Education voted to create a new graduation requirement, minutes after they expressed concerns with high-stakes testing.

The committee passed a bill requiring Idaho students to pass a 100-question civics test before they could graduate. Pushed by Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, the civics bill would require students pass the citizenship test administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Even though students would not be able to receive a high school diploma unless they pass the test,  Reps. Kerby and Terry Gestrin, R-Donnelly, said they do not view the civics test as a high-stakes test.

Knives. A divided House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee voted to kill a bill that would have banned school districts from establishing policies on knives.

Education groups lobbied against Senate Bill 1092, which would have banned any local ordinances “relating to the transportation, possession, carrying, sale, transfer, purchase, gift, devise, licensing, registration or use of a knife or knife making components.” Education groups urged the committee to kill the bill — or rewrite it to allow schools to establish their own policies.

Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, said his bill would have allowed, and forced, school groups to come back with one overarching proposal. “The state does have primacy over the schools.” But Perry said a one-size-fits-all policy would not work for the urban and rural Canyon County schools she represents. “I’m concerned about having one rule for everything.”

The committee agreed, holding Heider’s Senate-passed bill on a 9-8 vote.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.