What’s next for education? Big changes loom in Legislature

With the election behind, eyes are about to turn to the Legislature’s organizational session next month.

That’s because what happens next for education will be shaped by leadership changes coming to the House Education Committee and the budget-writing Joint-Finance Appropriations Committee. Depending on how the dominos fall, changes could come to the Senate Education Committee as well.

On Dec. 6, legislators will gather at the Statehouse for an organizational session where leadership will formally choose and announce new leaders for House Education, JFAC and other legislative committees.

This year, there will be even more attention on the organizational session because control of House Education appears up for grabs and there may be no clear front-runner. House Education Chairwoman Julie VanOrden was defeated in the May primary, and Vice Chairman Patrick McDonald lost during Tuesday’s general election.

“As far as changes to education, I think the big thing for us is going to be chair and vice chair on the House Education Committee,” Idaho School Boards Association Executive Director Karen Echeverria said. “Both of those folks are now gone and we don’t really know who is next.”

With Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra winning re-election, there is stability atop the State Department of Education. Education leaders expect Gov.-elect Brad Little to make a commitment to education, and they don’t expect wild, drastic changes in the short term.

Rep. Ryan Kerby

That means the biggest question marks are in the Legislature.

House Education is the largest and one of the most conservative committees in the House. Its ranks include several strong, outspoken conservatives, including Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth and Judy Boyle, R-Midvale. While Kerby and Syme are influential and outspoken, they are somewhat green. Syme is wrapping up his first term and Kerby is completing his second. The state also reprimanded Kerby for not following Idaho law and ethics rules when he submitted teacher evaluations when he was superintendent of the New Plymouth School District.

Boyle is a seasoned veteran with five terms under her belt, but she already chairs the Agricultural Affairs Committee.

Leadership could look outside the committee and recruit a member of the Legislature’s Public School Funding Formula Interim Committee to lead House Education. Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, is a former school trustee and former House Education member, but she may be eyeing a stronger role with JFAC. Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, is another member of the school funding formula committee who has clout among the conservative wing of the House, but he is also relatively inexperienced and just finishing his second term in the Legislature — and is already a member of JFAC.

Rep. Wendy Horman

All that is to say that House Speaker Scott Bedke faces a difficult decision — and that’s assuming he doesn’t face a serious challenge to his speakership before the session.

Additional leadership changes are coming to JFAC, with the retirement of both former co-chairs, Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, and Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. There may be more changes coming to JFAC, depending on results of a recount in Boise’s District 15. Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise, currently serves as vice chair of JFAC and could be in line for a promotion. But unofficial election results show he won Tuesday’s race by just six votes and a recount is looming.

Idaho Association of School Administrators Executive Director Rob Winslow said the defeat of House Education’s chairwoman and vice chair in the same year was a surprise.

“Going into the session, the more you know ahead of time about who you will be working with is helpful,” Winslow said.

Both Winslow and Echeverria said the education issue most likely to dominate the legislative session is the school funding formula. After three years of work, the Public School Funding Formula Interim Committee recommended rewriting Idaho’s complicated school funding formula and transitioning to an enrollment, or student-centered, method of funding.

“I don’t see a lot else coming down the pike, I’m hoping, I guess, because that will take a lot of time,” Echeverria said.

One other thing to keep an eye on this next year — the relationship between the Idaho Education Association and Ybarra. In the runup to Tuesday’s election, the IEA went all-in on a $249,000 ad campaign supported financially by the National Education Association that said Ybarra cannot be trusted to run Idaho’s schools.

The IEA also abruptly parted ways with its former executive director Sue Wigdorski in the days before the election.

On Wednesday, the IEA began to repair that relationship with Ybarra, issuing a statement congratulating her on her victory and expressing a willingness to work together.

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