Statehouse roundup, 3.31.15: New broadband plan killed

A late-session attempt to start up a new school broadband program took a pounding in the House State Affairs Committee Tuesday.

The upshot: School districts large and small may be on their own for the foreseeable future, in terms of shopping for high-speed Internet and applying for matching dollars.

State Affairs voted down House Bill 315, which would have set up two different panels to replace the defunct Idaho Education Network. The first, the Education Opportunity Network, would have helped schools and libraries secure broadband and federally administered dollars from “e-Rate” phone surcharges. The second, the Idaho Opportunity Network, would have worked on technology issues across state government.

But much of the debate — and most of the questioning from committee members — focused on broadband in the schools, and the legacy of the Idaho Education Network contract debacle.

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Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene

The bill’s sponsor, Coeur d’Alene Republican Luke Malek, said the idea was to set up a framework that would allow rural school districts to secure broadband, and take advantage of the state’s buying power. Many larger districts can choose between several possible bidders, he said, “(but) for rural districts, that’s not always the best option.”

Will Goodman, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s chief technology officer, predicted that 80 to 85 percent of the state’s 115 districts would sign on to another statewide network — based on the popularity of a state-funded high school WiFi contract. A statewide network would cater to rural districts that don’t have the staffing to maintain a high-speed Internet system, or the administrative staff to navigate the e-Rate application process.

Malek argued that the new committees need to be put in place this year, in order to get the state back on schedule to receive e-Rate dollars in 2016. The state’s e-Rate payments have been on hold since 2013, an offshoot of the Idaho Education Network contract dispute. But committee members were skeptical about the timing, especially since districts can seek their own e-Rate funding.

The Idaho Education Network and Schoolnet instructional management system failures were on Boise Republican Lynn Luker’s mind, as he urged the committee not to rush to create a new quasi-governmental panel.

“I guess I’m just concerned about doing this at the end of the legislative session,” he said. “I’m concerned about going down another rabbit hole.”

A motion to send House Bill 315 to the House floor secured only two votes, from Reps. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, and Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise. The committee then killed the bill.

Afterwards, Malek said he was surprised by the resounding vote — and said he would need to talk to legislative leadership before deciding what to do next. But during committee debate, Malek said HB 315 had been in the works for most of the session, as it became apparent that the state would have to rebid its broadband contract.

In other Statehouse action Tuesday:

Civics test. The House passed a bill requiring students to pass a civics test as a graduation requirement.

Sponsoring Rep. Terry Gestrin, R-Donnelly, said Senate Bill 1071 is needed to engage young people in their government and to highlight civic responsibilities such as voting.

The test would be built using 100 questions from the citizenship test administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (Can you pass the test? Idaho Ed News created an online civics quiz using the same bank of questions).

Several lawmakers joined into a spirited debate on the bill when it went to the floor for a vote. Several expressed frustration with the public’s lack of knowledge about the country’s history and government, lamenting the existence of popular late talk show segments featuring random people struggling to answer basic questions about who serves as vice president or the winner of the Civil War.

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Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise

“It’s not funny; it’s disastrous when we don’t even understand the sacrifices made to bring us to the place we are at today,” Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said. “We’re falling apart.”

Rubel said passing the test should not be a high bar, with students having the opportunity to complete it any time after starting seventh grade and being able to retake it as many times as necessary.

“I’d certainly hope everybody in this room… could walk in cold and pass it,” Rubel said.

Most lawmakers appeared to agree with the idea of sharpening the focus on civics and social studies, but a few disliked the idea of forcing a new test on students.

“I think mandating a multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank test does not create better or more educated citizens,” said Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise.

The House passed the bill, 59-10.

If it becomes law, passage of the test would be required beginning in the 2016-17 school year.

The bill already cleared the Senate 29-6 on March 9. It next heads to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk for final consideration.

STEM ‘action center.’ The Senate endorsed a bill designed to promote the “STEM” academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and science.

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Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene

Sen. Bob Nonini’s House Bill 302 would create a STEM “action center,” under Gov. Butch Otter’s office. Among the center’s goals: “to drive student experience, engagement and industry alignment by identifying and implementing public and higher education STEM best practices to transform work force development.”

Nonini touted his House-passed bill as a way of creating a hub that would focus the state’s STEM activities. But the potential costs raised some concerns.

Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, said the program seemed “duplicative,” and she said it was unclear how the center would spend a proposed $2 million budget. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Cameron didn’t commit to finding $2 million for the center — but said budget-writers would look for some one-time money as a possible match to industry contributions.

With the Senate’s 28-7 vote, HB 302 goes to Otter’s desk.

Alternative education. The Senate gave unanimous approval to a bill that would make funding available for alternative middle school programs.

State law now funds alternative education for seventh- through 12th-graders. House Bill 300 would extend alternative funding to sixth grade — for schools that want to provide alternative middle school programs.

The projected cost, in 2016-17, comes to $712,000.

HB 300 goes to Otter’s desk.

Charter school reserve account. The Senate Education Committee endorsed a bill that would create, but not fund, a debt reserve account for charter schools.

Advocates said House Bill 309 would allow charter schools to save millions of dollars on financing new facilities. Don Keller — administrator of Sage International School, a charter school looking to purchase its building and property in Southeast Boise — said savings on interest alone could allow the school to hire seven additional teachers.

Karen Echeverria of the Idaho School Boards Association urged the committee to hold the bill, since it was unclear how much money would go into the reserve account — or where the money would come from. “How is that going to impact the K-12 budget?”

The committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the Senate floor. It has already passed the House.

Idaho Ed News reporter Clark Corbin contributed to this article.