Statehouse roundup, 3.7.22: JFAC endorses teacher pay raises, bonuses, literacy money

Without much drama, legislative budget-writers signed off on Gov. Brad Little’s K-12 wish list, including teacher pay raises and bonuses, and money that could go into all-day kindergarten.

The House and the Senate will still have to pass the education budget bills.

But on Monday morning, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee quickly plowed through all the K-12 budgets. And after disagreeing sharply last week on a higher education budget, JFAC approved the K-12 budgets on a series of unanimous or almost unanimous votes.

Among the line items:

Teacher pay raises. JFAC approved Little’s accelerated $103.6 million plan for teacher pay raises under the “career ladder.” Little proposed using a mix of funds, including $36.5 million of federal coronavirus aid, to beef up the raises.

Bonuses. JFAC signed off on $1,000 bonuses for teachers, administrators and classified staff. Little wants to use $36.7 million of federal aid for the bonuses.

Health benefits. JFAC voted to pay the bills for a health insurance upgrade for K-12 employees. The cost: $75.5 million in one-time cost, and $105.4 million in ongoing costs. JFAC’s moves were anticlimactic: The Legislature has already approved a plan to encourage schools to move their employees onto the state insurance plan, and Little has already signed it into law.

School nutrition. JFAC approved putting another $74 million of federal money into school nutrition programs, to continue to provide universal free meals through June 2023.

Literacy. JFAC put another $46.7 million into early literacy programs.

While most budget line items passed with little discussion, literacy was an exception, sparking a policy debate over all-day kindergarten.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, asked if the added literacy money could be used for all-day kindergarten — whether legislators approve the idea or not.

Some schools are already using their share of the existing $26 million literacy budget for all-day kindergarten. To date, early literacy has been “loosely defined” to include all-day kindergarten, Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, told Nate.

The 2022 Legislature has not approved, or seriously discussed, a bill to advance all-day kindergarten. On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee will discuss Senate Bill 1373, which revamps the way the state distributes literacy dollars to schools — and makes clear that schools can use their money for optional all-day kindergarten. It’s likely to be the only all-day kindergarten bill Senate Education will consider, Chairman Steven Thayn said during a brief committee meeting Monday afternoon.

In JFAC on Monday morning, Nate and Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, voted against a K-12 “children’s programs” budget, which included the $46.7 million literacy program increase, and the $74 million for school nutrition. JFAC passed the bill on a 15-2 vote.

All told, JFAC approved 11 education-related spending bills Monday. It’s a mix of supplemental budgets for the fiscal year ending June 30, and spending bills for 2022-23.

Academic standards rewrite clears House

A long-debated rewrite of Idaho’s academic content standards took another step toward becoming law Monday.

The House backed a bill to adopt proposed standards, drafted by the State Department of Education at lawmakers’ direction. It would replace existing standards — benchmarks that detail what students must learn — in math, English and science.

Supportive lawmakers see adopting the rewritten standards as a way of shedding the math and English standards’ connections to Common Core.

“If there was anyone who was opposed to Common Core, you need to vote for this bill,” Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls said on the House floor.

House Bill 716 easily passed 66-3 Monday, but questions about the potentially steep costs of continuing to comply with federal standardized testing requirements remain unanswered.

No lawmakers debated against HB 716 Monday, and only Democratic Reps. Colin Nash and Lauren Necochea of Boise and Sally Toone of Gooding voted against it.

On Monday afternoon, the House passed a separate resolution rejecting the state’s current standards on a 60-8 vote, over the objection of some Democrats.

Both measures head to the Senate Education Committee. Chairman Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, has told EdNews he supports the new standards.

WWAMI proposals pass the House

The House passed a bill designed to encourage Idaho medical school graduates to return to the state.

House Bill 718 would require Idaho students in the “WWAMI” program to sign a contract and agree to practice medicine in the state for four years. If they do not, they would be forced to repay the state for subsidizing their medical education.

Idaho pays about $6.9 million for 40 seats in WWAMI, a University of Washington program named for its member states: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. About half of Idaho’s WWAMI grads return to the state after graduation.

Supporters said the bill would help address Idaho’s doctor shortage. Critics said the bill fails to address a key cause of the doctor shortage: a shortage of residencies.

The House passed HB 718 on a 54-15 vote, and a companion resolution urging the State Board of Education to pursue additional WWAMI seats. Both measures now go to the Senate.

House panel backs school mask mandate ‘exemption’ bill

A bill to allow parents to opt their children out of school mask requirements cleared the House Education Committee.

House Bill 734 would follow in the footsteps of the West Ada School District, which, last fall, allowed students to go without masks at school if their parents signed a form. Parents would have to state their objections to mask wearing for reasons ranging from religion to personal beliefs.

It’s one in a growingly long line of bills targeting local mask mandates. The House passed a more sweeping bill, which would prevent all government entities — including school districts — from mandating masks to mitigate the spread of infectious diseases. That broader bill sits in the Senate, where a similar proposal died last year.

A handful of testifiers advocating for HB 734 said they were parents in the Boise School District — one of the few districts in Idaho that still had a mask requirement in place.

Adrianna Caldwell, one of those parents, pleaded for state action.

“The good lord chose me to be the parent of these kids, which means it is my responsibility to make decisions on their behalf, not school districts’ or committee members,’” Caldwell said.

Another parent, Amber Pearson, decried mask mandates alongside a sixth-grader and an eight-year-old; Pearson didn’t say they were her children, though they shared her last name and spoke directly after her about their opposition to wearing masks.

The Boise School District dropped its mask mandate later Monday afternoon, as EdNews reported.

The public hearing on HB 734 spanned two days, after the committee ran out of time to vote on it Friday.

During debate, Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, warned that the bill would hamstring districts if they needed to impose universal mask mandates in the wake of future, deadlier variants of COVID-19.

Backing the bill, Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls said, “When it comes to local control, you are never more local than the parents.”

HB 734 passed on a voice vote, with “nays” ringing out from Democrats. It heads to the House floor.

CWI election change passes House

The House Monday passed a bill that would change elections for the College of Western Idaho board of trustees.

Currently, community college trustees across the state must live in different geographic zones, but voters within the colleges’ boundaries can vote in each trustee seat election. House Bill 738 would make it so voters can only vote for the trustee who lives in their zone.

A previous version of the bill would have applied to all community colleges, but this iteration only applies to community colleges with 250,00 people living within its geographic boundaries. That means it would only apply to College of Western Idaho, the biggest such college in the state.

“I heard somebody say … ‘this seemed like a Treasure Valley issue,’” bill sponsor Rep. Greg Cheney said. We’ll take care of the Treasure Valley then, and leave everybody alone that doesn’t want to be messed with.”

Cheney, a Republican, represents Caldwell which is inside CWI’s area.

Nash’s home of Boise is also in CWI’s boundaries. He opposed the bill, arguing it would decrease voters’ involvement and engagement.

“I want a responsive board. Me being able to vote for one trustee every four years is not a responsive board,” Nash said.

A 2020 at-large election gave CWI a board comprised entirely of women, a composition that changed last year following an abrupt resignation and trustee replacement.

The change to CWI elections passed 62-8 and is headed to the Senate for a potential committee hearing.

Vote on HB 738

Parents and driver’s ed. House Bill 683, which would allow parents to teach their children how to drive in lieu of sending them to private or public driver’s education courses offered by certified instructors, cleared the House. Backers argued the bill would save parents the money and hassle that comes with enrolling their children in courses, while opponents raised concerns about the safety of new drivers driving on urban roads without a certified instructor or a passenger-side brake for their parent to use.

HB 683 passed 57-11, splitting both Republicans and Democrats.

Charter commission funding. A $700,000 budget for the Idaho Charter Commission passed unanimously with no debate. House Bill 725 would continue funding the commission’s five employee salaries.

Senate passes master educator premium ‘grandfather’ bill

A bill to provide master educator premiums to 23 school administrators is headed to Little’s desk.

The Senate passed House Bill 533, which covers teachers who qualified for the three-year, $12,000 bonuses, but left the classroom for an administrator’s job. This bill would cover these educators’ bonuses through 2024, when the bonus program sunsets for all educators.

The bill passed 31-3, over the objections of three Republicans: Regina Bayer of Meridian, Steve Vick of Dalton Gardens and Christy Zito of Hammett. The bill has already passed the House.



Kevin Richert and Blake Jones

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