Statehouse roundup, 3.4.22: A ‘blend’ of dyslexia-focused bills heads to the House

The Legislature’s third stab at a bill to help students with dyslexia may be the charm.

After a pair of dueling proposals stirred disagreement between stakeholders in recent weeks, a new bill has apparently allayed concerns about the costs and rollout of a ramped-up response. After supportive testimony from State Department of Education staff, parents and students, the House Education Committee unanimously passed the latest iteration, House Bill 731, on Friday.

HB 731 calls for primary and secondary screenings for dyslexia, including testing fourth- and fifth-graders with the Idaho Reading Indicator, a standardized test currently given to K-3 students. It also writes into law that schools would use the SDE’s forthcoming dyslexia handbook for educators.

Previously, the SDE had proposed one dyslexia bill, while Decoding Dyslexia Idaho founder Robin Zikmund and College of Idaho education professor Sally Brown proposed the other. HB 731 incorporates pieces of both bills, and on Friday, both groups signaled support for the new proposal.

By extending the deadline for implementing the dyslexia response and providing money to train teachers, the new bill earned the SDE’s support, deputy superintendent Marilyn Whitney told the committee. The new bill calls for $97,000 for the SDE to fund a new position to help oversee beefed-up dyslexia screenings.

“This is a good blend of the best points of the House and Senate bills, informed by dyslexia experts,” state superintendent Sherri Ybarra said in a news release Friday. “We wanted a path forward. We could and should be doing more for kids with dyslexia, and to help teachers reach them. This is a strong starting point.”

Other supporters offered emotional testimony, describing their challenges with dyslexia, a reading disorder that affects roughly 20% of kids.

Coeur d’Alene fourth-grader Bridget McNamee said the bill would help her fifth-grade sister, who has dyslexia.

“Having teachers who understand what she is going through and how to support will help her very much,” McNamee said.

The bill passed unanimously after committee members lauded its capacity to improve early literacy. It now heads to the House floor.

House votes to extend funding of schools based on enrollment

The House narrowly passed a bill to continue funding schools based on total enrollment, rather than on average student daily attendance, for the next two years.

Idaho has funded schools this way for the past two years, so pandemic-related attendance fluctuations wouldn’t destabilize schools’ budgets. House Bill 723 would extend the change through 2023-24. It would also establish a committee that will meet at the end of those two years to reevaluate the school funding formula.

The sponsor, House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said schools have been “bounced around” by changes in funding, and HB 723 would grant them some stability.

“This is a direction that we’ve been heading on and I believe that is important,” Clow said.

The bill passed 39-26, dividing Republicans and earning consensus support from Democrats.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, argued the bill would allow schools to implement unpopular mask rules, and avoid financial repercussions if students stay home in response.

Notably, schools have seat time requirements for how often enrolled students need to be in class. But Nate also contended that student walkouts would put less pressure on schools if funding isn’t tied to attendance.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, pointed to the bill’s $23.8 million price tag and said, “You’re paying for kids that aren’t going to school.”

Clow and House Education Vice Chairman Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, defended the flexibility offered by enrollment-based funding, which allows students to pursue internships and other out-of-classroom opportunities without penalizing schools.

Other supporters said charter schools are especially sensitive to attendance-based funding, putting a system that many Idaho lawmakers support at risk.

“School choice is a big part of this,” Clow said.

A committee already reviewed Idaho’s funding formula. It met for three years and didn’t lead to policy change in the Legislature.

“It seems like we’ve been in a perpetual motion on having a committee study the funding formula, study the funding formula, spending more and more dollars on this,” Nate said.

The committee would cost around $100,000 of the $23.8 million laid out in the bill’s fiscal note.

Ybarra, the State Board of Education and a laundry list of education groups have called for a permanent switch to enrollment-based funding. (Here’s an explainer on the issue.)

Earlier this session, Clow brought forward a bill to make the switch permanent, but amid lawmakers’ hesitations, he brought forward the new version, that sunsets after two years.

That bill passed out of committee Wednesday. It now heads to the Senate for a potential committee hearing.

House passes campus ‘free speech’ bill

The House easily passed a bill that sponsors say would protect free speech on college campuses.

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. (That would include banning free speech zones.)
  • 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.

“All political persuasions, all political parties, those with no political leanings, and those with ideas that cross and mix ideologies should have their constitutional free speech rights protected in an omnipartisan manner,” said co-sponsor Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City.

Said co-sponsor Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, “What’s good for one is good for all.”

The bill passed 63-2. It now goes to the Senate.

Property tax overhaul won’t affect schools

A long-awaited property tax overhaul bill got its first hearing in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee Friday.

The complicated bill slashes residential property taxes, increases the grocery tax credit and increases the sales tax — but it doesn’t affect school bonds and levies.

Homeowners would still pay existing school bonds and levies. School districts would still be able to seek voter approval for bonds and levies.

“It doesn’t change that authority at all,” said Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, a bill sponsor and chairman of the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee.

The bill, introduced Friday, would eliminate other local property taxes on homes. To offset the property tax cut, the state would increase its sales tax from 6% to 7.85%, and siphon most of this money to local governments that now collect property taxes.

The impacts will vary, from community to community. But Rice said some homeowners will see their property taxes drop by 65% or more — significantly lowering their monthly house payments.

“It is substantial property tax relief,” Rice said.

The bill would not affect taxes on commercial and retail property or farmland. (More details on the bill’s mechanics, from Ryan Suppe of the Idaho Statesman.)

Revenue and Taxation voted unanimously to introduce the bill, but not without some reservations.

Rep. Linda Wright Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said she had a “niggling feeling” that the overhaul might not be as good as it looks. She was particularly concerned about farmers, who pay a heavy share of school levies and bonds.

Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, said she was uneasy about the increased sales tax, and how it might affect border communities in her district.

Friday’s vote sets the stage for a full committee hearing on the bill.

(More reading: Here’s a preview of Tuesday’s school ballot measures, and a look at Idaho’s rising supplemental school property tax bill.)

Defining homeschooling 

House Education sent House Bill 732 to the House floor.

It would further define what a homeschool student is in state law, declaring that students who are dually enrolled in certain public school courses and sports don’t count as homeschool students.

The Idaho Education Association opposes the bill, Executive Director Paul Stark said, both of its content and the process used to introduce it. He said the IEA wasn’t able to review the bill until Thursday afternoon, the bill could create liability concerns for schools who take on homeschoolers in their programs but don’t enroll them.

Sponsor Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, countered that liability would be placed on the shoulders of administrators, not the teachers the IEA represents.

Democrats opposed sending the bill to the House floor.

McCrostie took issue with the quick turnaround time. Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, cautioned the bill doesn’t effectively clarify the definition of homeschooling, as it purports to.

“And I don’t think that we can draw conclusions on face value of some of the assurances of what the … impact might be on funding one way or another,” Berch said.

Berch attempted to hold the bill in committee and discuss it further at a future date once stakeholders have had time to evaluate it. But his motion never got a vote, as the committee sent the bill to the House floor on a separate motion.

Some Republicans said they had concerns too but felt comfortable waiting for stakeholders to weigh in as the bill progresses through the Statehouse. All House bills are supposed to be passed onto the Senate by March 7, which played into those considerations.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.

Blake Jones

Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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