Statehouse roundup, 1.31.23: Post-high school incentive program clears a hurdle; school choice bill introduced

A multimillion-dollar incentive program for high school graduates cleared its first big Statehouse hurdle Tuesday — but it wasn’t easy.

A deeply divided House Education Committee passed the Idaho Launch bill, on a 10-7 vote that suggests the bill could run into more trouble on the House floor or in the Senate.

One of Gov. Brad Little’s top education priorities for 2023, House Bill 24 would provide up to $8,500 for high school graduates who are looking to pursue in-demand careers. They could put the money towards a four-year degree, a two-year degree, career-technical education or workforce training.

Rep. Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, fields a question during Tuesday’s House Education Committee meeting.

“The easiest way to think of this is, think jobs, not diplomas,” said House Majority Leader Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, the bill’s sponsor. She called HB 24 a grant program that would use taxpayer-support financial aid to target careers that grow the workforce.

HB 24 would provide $102 million for postsecondary aid: $80 million from a permanent, in-demand careers education fund, created during a one-day legislative session in September; and $22 million by phasing out existing scholarships, such as the Opportunity Scholarship, which provides need-based aid of up to $3,500 a year for four years.

House Education’s first big public hearing of the session drew a high-powered and overflow crowd. Several members of Little’s staff attended, as did Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke, state superintendent Debbie Critchfield and College of Western Idaho President Gordon Jones. Critchfield and Jones were among several speakers who urged the committee to pass HB 24.

Boise State University student body president Adam Jones also spoke in favor of the bill.

“This represents a commitment from the Idaho Legislature to improve Idaho’s dismal go-on rate,” he said.

Industry representatives also lined up in support.

“The labor shortage is a painful, difficult challenge for every Idaho employer every day,” said Deni Hoehne, a WinCo foods personnel executive who chairs the state Workforce Development Council, which would administer the Idaho Launch awards.

Anna Miller, education policy director for the Idaho Freedom Foundation, said HB 24 would drive up the cost of postsecondary education, while providing “a crony taxpayer handout to big business.”

Committee hardliners were just as adamant in their opposition. Rep. Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls, labeled the bill “pure socialism.” Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, said HB 24 represented another government-supported program, not unlike public health care or free school lunches.

“It’s important to earn things,” Mendive said. “It means more to you.”

Reps. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, and Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, said they would prefer to see the state’s money go into building programs that can train students.

A bipartisan group of committee members — including committee Chair Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell — said the aid would bridge the affordability gap for many high school graduates who want to continue their education.

“These workers are going to build the economy,” said Rep. Lori McCann, R-Lewiston, the committee’s vice chairwoman. “We’re strong but have the opportunity to be stronger.”

HB 24 now goes to the House floor for a vote, perhaps later in the week.

Here’s Tuesday’s committee roll call:

Yes: Yamamoto; McCann; Reps. Steve Berch, D-Boise; Soñia Galaviz, D-Boise; Dan Garner, R-Clifton; Ted Hill, R-Eagle; Greg Lanting, R-Twin Falls; Chris Mathias, D-Boise; Jack Nelsen, R-Jerome; and Mark Sauter, R-Sandpoint.

No: Boyle; Clow; Mendive; Wisniewski; Reps. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls; Dale Hawkins, R-Fernwood; and Elaine Price, R-Coeur d’Alene.

School choice bill makes its debut

A divisive school choice bill cleared it first hurdle, following an 8-1 vote in the Senate Education Committee Tuesday afternoon. 

The “Education Freedom Act” or “Freedom in Education Savings Accounts Program” would pull around $20 million from the general maintenance and operations fund to create a universal education savings account (ESA) program. 

Any family with a K-12 student would be eligible to apply for an ESA and receive $5,950 per-child scholarships (80% of what the State Department of Education pays school districts per student) to put toward private school tuition and fees or other approved education expenses. 

Sen. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, introduced the bill. 

The purpose of the policy, she said, is to open up educational options for parents. Idaho’s “limited school choice” is no longer enough, she said, citing overcrowding, low test scores, bullying and alleged indoctrination in public schools as contributors to “frustrations with the status quo.” 

“Many families feel stuck,” Nichols said. 

The nine-member committee voted swiftly to introduce the bill. The meeting adjourned less than six minutes after it began. 

The lone dissenting vote came from Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise. After the meeting, she told EdNews she believes there are a host of issues with the policy. 

“I believe this bill is unconstitutional,” she said, citing Idaho’s Blaine Amendment — a clause in the state constitution that prohibits the use of public money for religious education. 

On Monday, the Senate Education Committee sent a bill to print that would repeal the Blaine Amendment. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa, called the clause a “relic of religious bigotry.” 

Ward-Engelking also listed the backlog in deferred maintenance costs and districts’ reliance on bonds and levies as reasons for her vote against Nichols’ policy. 

“This would kill public education by a thousand cuts every day,” she said. 

Tuesday’s vote sets the stage for a full committee hearing — which is likely to be contentious.

Major education organizations, like the Idaho School Boards Association and Idaho Education Association, have spoken out against ESA bills many times over the past year, while advocates like the Idaho Freedom Foundation and many conservative lawmakers have fiercely advocated for ESAs in the name of “educational freedom.”

Read the bill text in full here: RS30093 Education Freedom Act.

Bill would eliminate March, August school elections

Another attempt to limit school bond and levy elections made its debut Tuesday.

House Bill 58 would eliminate March and August school elections, requiring schools to hold their bond and levy elections in May or November.

The House State Affairs Committee introduced the bill, sponsored by first-year Rep. Joe Alfieri, R-Coeur d’Alene.

Alfieri suggested that it’s dishonest for school districts to re-run ballot measures repeatedly, according to a full report on Tuesday’s State Affairs hearing from Clark Corbin of the Idaho Capital Sun.

“The real issue though, I think, is that what we have here is dishonesty toward the voters because you don’t get do-overs when you lose an election,” Alfieri said, according to Corbin’s report. “And I will tell you that having run for mayor in Coeur d’Alene and losing, I would have liked to have a do-over because I think I would have won that second election. But that’s not the point; I think it’s just wrong to do it.”

Alfieri’s bill is not a new idea. The House passed a similar bill in 2020, but it never passed the Senate. The House in 2021 passed a bill to eliminate the August election date, but it too stalled in the Senate.

Historically, March is by far the most popular election date for supplemental levies.

HB 58 could now come back to State Affairs for a full hearing at a later date.


Kevin Richert and Sadie Dittenber

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