After months of anticipation, the House Education Committee will hold a formal but introductory hearing on a new bill to rewrite Idaho’s school funding formula.
But it might not be the only bill to address this controversial and complicated issue.
The committee will meet at 8:30 a.m. Monday to vote on a draft bill — known in Statehouse jargon as a “routing slip” or “RS.”
“I feel it is important we get an RS before this committee,” said Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, House Education’s chairman. “If it’s introduced by the committee, it will be assigned a bill number for the public to see everything that is being discussed.”
“We need to get this out in the public’s hands,” Clow continued.
At issue is a proposal to scrap Idaho’s 25-year-old attendance-based funding formula and replace it with an enrollment-based model where money follows the students. The proposal is three years in the making. A legislative interim committee, working with consultants from Education Commission of the States, developed the framework.
Because public school funding is Idaho’s largest general fund expense each year, taxpayers, education officials and the news media are heavily scrutinizing this process.
Clow said he worked with Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, members of the House and Senate and representatives from education groups to develop the draft. He said the bill was based on a draft the interim committee published Jan. 31, and incorporates some language from a different draft written by Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, and Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, two members of the interim committee.
On Friday monring, Clow said Monday’s hearing will be a traditional introductory hearing, without public testimony. He also told House Education to expect multiple versions or tweaks to any bill before voting on whether to send a proposal to the House floor.
“Just because a bill is printed doesn’t mean it’s the last time we’re going to look at that,” Clow said. “There could be another RS to follow.”
At this point, it’s getting very late in the session for a major initiative such as funding overhaul to make its debut and still pass. Legislative leaders are pushing to adjourn the session later this month, and Gov. Brad Little told Idaho EdNews he does not think it’s a good idea for him to force the Legislature to stay longer to pass the bill.
Nevertheless, Clow and House Education’s vice chairman, Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, suggested there is still time to squeak a proposal through if they find the necessary support.
“A lot of it has to do with the will of leadership,” Clow said. “They have (the ability) to move quickly.”
Horman, the House co-chair of the funding formula interim committee, said she is hopeful that something will pass this session.
“I think the prospects of getting a single bill out of this process are good,” she said. “I believe a compromise can be reached.”
But Horman said she could not speak to differences between the different versions of the bill.
Meanwhile, Mortimer told Idaho Education News Friday that the funding formula proposal has been handed off to the Senate, which would likely introduce a bill next week.
“We’re making great progress,” he said.
Mortimer made his comments while House Education was still meeting, mere moments before Clow told his committee to brace for an introductory hearing.
Senate Education is not a privileged committee like House Education is, so Senate Education is not allowed to introduce new bills this late in the legislative session. It wasn’t immediately clear Friday whether Mortimer and Clow were talking about the same bill, or whether competing funding formula bills would be introduced next week. Nor was it immediately clear if Mortimer would need to work with a different, privileged committee to introduce the bill.
House passes Ybarra’s administrative budget
This time around, an education agency budget passed quickly, with ample votes to spare.
The House endorsed House Bill 232, the administrative budget for state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s State Department of Education.
HB 232 is not to be confused with the $1.9 billion K-12 spending bills that sailed through the House earlier this week. Nor should it be confused with a $6.4 million State Board of Education budget, which abruptly died on the House floor Thursday morning.
Ybarra’s department stands to receive about $15.5 million from the state’s general fund, a 3.9 percent increase.
Debate was limited. Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, said she objected to the budget, because some of the department’s money would go toward advancing Common Core standards.
While an odd bipartisan coalition killed the State Board budget, no such alliance materialized Friday. Ybarra’s budget passed, 55-12. All the dissenting votes came from Republicans: Vito Barbieri, Dalton Gardens; Judy Boyle, Midvale; Chad Christensen, Ammon; Thomas Dayley, Boise; Priscilla Giddings, White Bird; Bill Goesling, Moscow; John Green, Post Falls; Dorothy Moon, Stanley; Tammy Nichols, Middleton; Julianne Young, Blackfoot; Christy Zito, Hammett; and Scott.
HB 232 now goes to the Senate.
Education savings accounts
House Education also introduced a bill to establish new education savings accounts that families could use to pay for tuition at private schools or other nonpublic school settings.
Sponsoring Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, told fellow committee members that his proposal does not create a voucher system, which is clearly unconstitutional in Idaho. However, Mendive’s bill is almost sure to run into opposition from public school advocates who will oppose efforts to funnel state funding toward private or religious schools.
Mendive’s bill would allow families to establish an education savings account. The state treasurer would then deposit an amount of money equal 90 percent of the statewide average amount of funding that is allocated for individual students.
During the 2016 legislative session, former Rep. Ron Nate took a similar approach. He unsuccessfully sought an amendment to the state constitution to allow families to use state grants, vouchers or scholarships at nonpublic schools.
Introducing Mendive’s bill clears the way for it to return to House Education for a full hearing. However, the lateness of the session and potential legal challenges make the bill’s prospects uncertain.
Student-sponsored bill sent out for changes
In other action from a busy Friday, House Education called for amendments to a bill co-written by a former student page.
Following nearly an hour of debate, the committee sent Senate Bill 1060aa out for possible amendments.
The bill is notable because it was cowritten by Nampa High School student body president Sebastian Griffin, a budding entrepreneur who served as a Senate page during the first half of the legislative session.
Griffin’s bill is designed to give flexibility to high-performing high school students who are looking for more of a challenge. If students meet GPA and college readiness benchmarks, they would be allowed to either graduate early or take college courses, career-technical education courses or work on an apprenticeship program or internship.
House Education members had several questions about the bill and wondered if it set a high enough standard. At one point, Clow even lectured Griffin’s co-sponsor, Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, about the accuracy and completeness of a fiscal note attached to bill.
Amending a bill this late in the session could be enough to kill it, but Reps. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, and Bill Goesling, R-Moscow, pledged to work with Thayn and Griffin to improve it before the session ends.
Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report. Check back with Idaho Education News for the latest developments in the funding formula proposal.