STEM endowment on hold — at least for the time being

Add the fledgling STEM Action Center to the list of last-minute budget items at the Legislature.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved a $2.3 million budget for the STEM Action Center Thursday morning. But budget-writers left the biggest item unfunded. They took no action on Gov. Butch Otter’s request to create a long-term, $10 million STEM Education Fund.

The fund is designed to create a long-term endowment to fund new programs in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math. Otter and STEM center supporters say the endowment is needed to attract matching, private donations.

But there’s a catch. Lawmakers still haven’t passed Senate Bill 1279, the legislation that would actually create the STEM Education Fund. They also aren’t done with House Bill 379, which would launch a new computer science initiative — and perhaps use $2 million from the STEM Education Fund.

With both of these bills still working their way through the lengthy legislative pipeline, JFAC didn’t address the STEM Education Fund Thursday.

That move does not mean the education fund is dead for the session. JFAC is likely to come back later this session to write a “trailer” spending bill for the education fund.

JFAC is already planning to write several other trailer spending bills to address pieces of the K-12 budget — such as Otter’s literacy initiative.

The STEM Action Center budget approved Thursday does represent more than a fourfold increase from the center’s current $547,000 budget.

In other Statehouse action Thursday:

School security. JFAC acted on one education-related trailer bill Thursday, putting $270,000 into a school security initiative.

The money would go to the state’s Division of Building Safety — and would help fund a five-person staff to inspect schools for security weaknesses. Inspections would occur on a three-year rotating basis.

The spending plan passed 18-1, with Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, voting no. (For more about the school security bill, here’s a link to our Statehouse roundup from Wednesday.)

Parental rights. A bill designed to highlight parents’ rights in the education system enjoyed a smooth passage through the House Education Committee.

Pushed by Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, Senate Bill 1293 states that a “parent or guardian has the right to reasonable academic accommodation from their child’s public school.”

The bill also calls on schools to develop policies to promote parental involvement and allows parents to withdraw their child from activities or classes if the parent objects “to any learning material or activity on the basis that it harms the child or impairs the family’s firmly held beliefs, values or principles…”

“The importance of this bill is this bill is an invitation to bring parents into the (educational) process,” Souza told the committee.

The bill passed committee comfortably, but Democratic Rep. Ilana Rubel of Boise asked Souza several questions about the controversial SBAC assessment test. The state could lose federal funding if 95 percent of eligible students don’t complete the SBAC. Rubel asked if parents could use the bill to opt out of the test.

Souza said new federal education laws grant more flexibility for testing and the 95 percent threshold “is not seen as being as problematic as last year.”

However, the new Every Student Succeeds Act still requires schools administer standardized tests to students in grades three through eight and once in high school, and that they administer the tests to at least 95 percent of those students.

Souza said she doesn’t have a firm handle on all provisions of the new federal education law, but she vetted her bill through Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra.

Earlier this session, lawmakers amended her bill to remove a clause saying “A student’s parent or guardian is the primary person responsible for the education of the student, and the state is in a secondary and supportive role…”

The bill next heads to the House floor, its final legislative hurdle. It cleared the Senate 32-2 on Monday.

Funding formula. The Senate voted to create a legislative committee to review Idaho’s complicated school funding formula.

The committee will spend the legislative offseason — and beyond — looking to rewrite the formula. Idaho has not rewritten its funding formula since 1994, and many lawmakers say the formula no longer fits the current educational system.

“This is definitely an issue whose time is here,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer, who is likely to sit on the committee.

The Senate passed the House Concurrent Resolution 33 35-0. It has already passed the House and requires no action by Otter, so Thursday’s vote constituted its final passage.

Charter “replication.” The Senate passed a bill that would allow nonprofit groups to operate multiple schools around the state.

Supporters say Senate Bill 1376 would allow nonprofit groups to replicate successful charter schools. The State Board of Education bill would also allow charter organizers to contract with “educational services providers,” which could be nonprofit or for-profit groups.

With the Senate’s 33-1 vote, the bill now heads to the House.

Sick leave. The Senate also passed a bill that would allow teachers and other academic staff to take accrued sick leave from job to job.

Supporters say House Bill 452 would enable staffers to more easily switch jobs. The State Board of Education proposed the bill.

The Senate’s 30-4 vote sends HB 452 back to the House. The House passed the bill earlier this session, but now must approve Senate amendments to the language.

Idaho Ed News reporter Clark Corbin contributed to this report.