Statehouse roundup, 2.7.24: A ‘combination’ library bill emerges

Two library bills have been merged into one.

And with little discussion, the bill made its debut Wednesday morning.

The Senate State Affairs Committee introduced “The Children’s School and Library Protection Act” — a first step that could bring the library issue back before lawmakers for another high-profile public hearing.

The bill takes elements of House Bill 384, a proposal focused on restricting access to “harmful” library materials, and Senate Bill 1221, a proposal that focused on creating a process to review and perhaps remove objectionable materials from school libraries.

Sen. Geoff Schroeder, a Mountain Home Republican and a co-sponsor of SB 1221, said the new bill was not a compromise, but instead a “combination” of the two bills. He was joined at Wednesday’s hearing by Rep. Jaron Crane, the lead sponsor of HB 384. Crane did not speak, and Schroeder provided only a brief overview of the bill.

The bill would require school and public libraries to adopt “written policies and procedures” for handling complaints about harmful materials, and do so by Jan. 1. A library must also name a “materials review committee” to field these complaints.

The latest bill would allow parents to seek damages — and this has been a sticking point in previous sessions, as lawmakers have hotly debated library bills. Parents would be able to seek a fine of $250, and uncapped damages, if a library violates the law.

JFAC questions State Board about data system rebuild, rural art grants

Budget-setting lawmakers Wednesday asked the State Board of Education to justify a number of spending requests — including for rural arts grants and a data system rebuild. 

The state’s K-12 longitudinal data system, the Idaho System for Educational Excellence (ISEE), is primed for an overhaul, but the State Board has yet to secure a contract for the project. Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Co-chair Rep. Wendy Horman asked for an update.

“Those funds have been in there awhile,” said Horman, R-Idaho Falls.

In its annual budget request, the State Board asked that its authority to spend $47.2 million on the rebuild carry over into the next fiscal year. State Board Director Matt Freeman said his team is negotiating with vendors about the price and scope of the project.

“No material amount of funding has been expended,” he said. 

The State Board also has asked to continue spending $250,000 annually on arts grants for rural schools. The Arts Education Projects provides up to $15,000 grants to K-12 rural schools, which can use the funds for arts equipment, supplies and curriculum. 

The Legislature approved $1 million one-time spending on the grants each of the last two fiscal years. On Wednesday, Rep. Josh Tanner, R-Eagle, asked Freeman to name the schools that received the grants and explain how they were spent. 

The Idaho Commission on the Arts, the program’s administrator, awarded a combined $1 million to 71 districts the first year of the program and another $1 million to 72 districts the second year, Freeman said. A list of recipients is online

Freeman also touted other State Board-administered programs, including Empowering Parents and the Securing Our Future program. The latter provided $20 million grants to K-12 schools for security upgrades. Most of the funding has already been spent, while the second phase of the program will target high-dollar projects. 

Empowering Parents provided $50 million in microgrants for out-of-pocket education expenses like laptops, textbooks and WiFi. A recent audit found grants went to just $41,000 worth of ineligible expenses.

“We felt that our fiduciary duties and our accountability measures were in place,” Freeman said. 

The Legislature last year approved another $30 million for Empowering Parents grants, but the future of the program is in doubt

JFAC hasn’t yet scheduled a vote on the State Board’s budget.

Phoenix resolution on hold, once again

A resolution addressing the University of Phoenix purchase was a no-show Wednesday — again.

The proposal was on Senate State Affairs’ Wednesday morning agenda, but it was yanked at Sen. C. Scott Grow’s request.

Grow, R-Eagle, is a sponsor of the yet-unreleased resolution on the University of Idaho’s proposed $685 million purchase. On Wednesday, Grow was also vague about the resolution’s prospects.

“It could come back,” he said after JFAC completed its morning hearings. “We’ll see how things progress.”

Grow declined to elaborate.

Grow and resolution co-sponsor Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, also co-chair JFAC. Both have openly questioned the purchase — and the U of I’s claims that the university would collect millions of dollars in annual revenues from Phoenix, at little risk.

Acting as the U of I’s board of regents, the State Board of Education approved the proposed purchase in May. The U of I has suggested it needs no additional state approval.

New bill seeks to restrict ‘harmful’ online materials  

Lawmakers seeking to clamp down on access to “harmful” online materials came back Wednesday with a rewrite.

Like its predecessor, the new version of the Online Child Safety Act would require content creators to verify the age of users who access obscene materials. If children are still able to access harmful materials, the content creator could face fines of $10,000 or more.

Sponsors of the bill made only one substantive change: After age verification, a content creator cannot retain a user’s “identifying information.”

The House State Affairs Committee introduced the bill Wednesday morning, paving the way for a full hearing at a later date.

A competing bill is teed up in the Senate but awaiting a vote. That would direct device manufacturers to enable software that filters pornography on smartphones and tablets used by minors.

Charter school rewrite clears another hurdle

An overhaul of Idaho’s charter school regulations is heading to the Senate. 

The bill has advanced with little resistance, though it is a sweeping revision of regulations governing charter school applications, operations and reauthorizations.  The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday unanimously voted to send House Bill 422 to the Senate floor, recommending that it pass, following overwhelming support in the House. 

Supporters have said the bill is designed to reward high-performing charters with less “red tape” and provide more support to struggling charters. 

There was no debate against the bill from the Senate committee. For more details on the bill, click here

Branden Durst, a former Democratic state lawmaker, school superintendent and one-time Republican candidate for state superintendent, spurred a brief discussion after urging lawmakers to amend the bill and allow religious organizations to authorize charter schools. 

“They’re being excluded just because they’re religious,” said Durst, who pointed to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that found religious schools couldn’t be excluded from tuition assistance programs in Maine and Montana. 

But the Supreme Court analyzed private school programs, and charter schools are considered public in Idaho, said Jeremy Chou, an attorney and lobbyist for K-12 Stride, a charter school curriculum vendor. 

“It has nothing to do with this bill,” Chou told the committee.

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business. Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism.

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