Statehouse roundup, 2.7.23: Idaho Launch ignites dispute on Senate floor

One day after a controversial postsecondary incentives bill eked through the House, the fireworks moved to the Senate floor.

The action began when Gov. Brad Little’s Idaho Launch bill officially reached the Senate, and was assigned to the Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee. After an objection, Senate Republicans went into a closed-door caucus for more than an hour.

Once out of caucus, Sen. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, made a motion to route House Bill 24 through the Senate Education Committee instead. She argued that the $102 million bill was primarily an education bill — in part because it eliminates two existing college scholarships to help pay for a program that would provide high school graduates up to $8,500 for college or career training.

Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, argued that the incentive program would be administered by the state’s Workforce Development Council, and said the bill fell under the Commerce and Human Resources Committee’s purview.

Ultimately, senators sided with Winder. Nichols’ motion to reroute the bill failed on a 9-26 vote.

The procedural move could give Idaho Launch an easier path to the Senate floor. Four of the nine members of the Senate Education Committee belong to the Idaho Freedom Caucus, a hardline legislative group which has condemned Idaho Launch as “corporate welfare, central planning and socialism.” That core of opposition could have put the Idaho Launch bill in jeopardy in committee, since five no votes could prevent the bill from reaching the Senate floor.

Just two of Senate Commerce and Human Resources’ nine members — Republicans Dan Foreman of Viola and Brian Lenney of Nampa — belong to the Freedom Caucus.

HB 24 took a circuitous path through the House. Touted by supporters as a workforce development bill, the $102 million bill began in the House’s Commerce and Human Resources Committee. House Speaker Mike Moyle routed it to the House Education Committee for a hearing.

It narrowly passed through House Education last week. After more than two hours’ debate Monday, the bill passed the full House on a 36-34 vote.

Superintendents report on regional successes, concerns

Six district superintendents paid a visit to the House Education Committee Tuesday morning.

They spoke of the successes from their regions, ranging from CTE programs to community schools to multi-district collaboration. But the superintendents didn’t shy away from a host of concerns, including staffing shortages and facilities funding. 

Regional superintendents visited the House Education Committee Tuesday morning.

Here’s what they had to say.

Region 1, Sandpoint to Plummer-Worley: 

Superintendent Becky Meyer of the Lake Pend Oreille district zeroed in on career-technical education in her region. The Kootenai Technical Education Center (KTEC) — a branch campus CTE partnership between local industries and the Coeur d’Alene, Lakeland and Post Falls school districts — has been an overwhelming success, Meyer said. The center offers training with local partners in over 10 trades, with the option to earn college credits. It has helped students find passion in education, and helped local businesses tailor their workforce, Meyer said.

“This is good for students, this is great for taxpayers,” she said.

But she used KTEC to highlight geographical discrepancies in education.

The more rural and secluded districts to the north, including her own district Lake Pend-Oreille, can’t afford to transport students to KTEC, and can’t pass a bond to fund their own CTE project. This disparity, she said, contradicts the Idaho Constitution’s mandate to provide a “uniform” education for students.

During a question-and-answer section of Tuesday’s meeting, Meyer touched on the “distractions” faced by school districts. She encouraged lawmakers and community members to get into their local schools to see what is really happening, instead of believing rumors on the internet.

Region 2, Potlatch to Grangeville:

Hiring speakers for professional development, transporting students for athletics, and paying school psychologists can drain small, rural districts of necessary funds, said Superintendent Wendy Moore of the Genessee Joint School District.

But districts in Region 2 are partnering up to share resources and put more money into the classroom. Districts often host joint professional development sessions and transport students from multiple districts to athletic events on the same bus.

And to overcome a shortage in bus drivers, teachers and administrators in the region (including Moore) have gotten commercial drivers licenses, and take turns driving morning and afternoon bus routes.

Small, rural districts tend to be the hub of a community, and preserving that takes dedication, she told the committee.

Region 3, Southwest Idaho: 

Marsing superintendent Norm Stewart highlighted The Hub, a community school in his own district. It provides services to students and families that address barriers to educational success like food insecurity and mental health challenges.

The Hub provides a food and clothing pantry, a school-based health center, mental health counseling, and early childhood education, alongside community resources like hunter safety and yoga classes.

For more on community schools, click here.

But Stewart also pointed to districts’ challenges hiring and retaining classified staff. He urged committee members to support the governor’s focus on classified staff funding.

Region 4, Magic Valley: 

Superintendent Brady Dickinson of the Twin Falls district focused on K-3 literacy.

“We want every child reading at grade level,” he said.

Districts across the region have taken steps to bolster literacy rates, like supporting and training teachers, targeting interventions with struggling students, and incorporating the science of reading. Some districts provide full-day kindergarten and are tracking the results.

And again, the superintendent pointed out challenges recruiting and retaining staff in the region.

“The teacher shortage is just killing us.”

And Dickinson asked legislators to provide districts and school boards with more direction on hot-button issues, specifically decisions around gender identity and bathroom use.

As districts navigate controversial issues, state guidance is sometimes lacking and districts fall back on federal guidance to avoid litigation, he said. But when that happens, districts are accused of disregarding community values. Specific guidelines and support from the state could clear up some of that confusion, according to the superintendent.

Region 5, Southeast Idaho:

Region 5 is not without staffing challenges, said Superintendent Spencer Barzee of West Side School District.

The original funding formula, which calculates how much money school districts receive to pay classified employees, hasn’t been changed since 1994.

“To put that in perspective for you, I was a freshman in high school that year,” Barzee told the committee.

It’s hard to compete with fast food restaurants that can pay more than what districts can pay classified employees. And it results in shortages in some dire positions, including special education aides, business managers and IT directors.

Even with those challenges, Barzee said districts in his region are building thriving CTE programs, and more students are graduating with their associates degrees.

Region 6, Upper Snake River Valley:

Superintendent Brian Kress of Blackfoot said schools are the “heartbeat of our communities.”

Region 6 districts provide diverse extracurricular activities, encourage students to pursue large-scale opportunities, and watch more students each year graduate with college credits, Kress said. New CTE facilities recently opened in the Idaho Falls and Bonneville districts, and the Fremont district will float a bond for a CTE center this year. The Blackfoot district received a $3.3 million federal grant to provide work-ready training to adult community members outside school hours.

But rural districts, Kress said, are struggling to keep these programs afloat.

“Any increase in funding for them would help them sustain those programs for the future and for their kids,” he said.

Kress also thanked the Legislature for last year’s decision to provide additional funding to help district personnel get on the state insurance plan. Before the decision, 47 employees in the Blackfoot district paid to insure multiple family members. Now, at least 184 employees are insuring multiple people.

“Thank you for changing the lives of our staff members in our community,” Kress said.

The superintendents made a similar presentation to the Senate Education Committee Tuesday afternoon.


Kevin Richert and Sadie Dittenber

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