Statehouse roundup, 3.15.24: Critchfield unveils incremental funding formula change

State superintendent Debbie Critchfield and two lawmakers Friday unveiled a late-session proposal to shift a small portion of the K-12 school budget to “per-student” funding. 

The bill would use student counts rather than support units as a metric for calculating discretionary funds, potentially adding $50 million to the annual allocation. Other areas of the school budget would continue to use support units. 

It’s not the funding formula overhaul that education leaders have long called for. But it’s a “really important first step in” modernizing the formula, said Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, who co-authored the legislation with Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, and Critchfield, a Republican. 

The state’s discretionary allocation fluctuates year to year. This fiscal year it’s $330 million, representing 12% of the overall public schools support budget. School districts typically use discretionary funding for operations costs, such as teacher and staff pay. 

Currently, discretionary funds are distributed based on a support unit, which is roughly the cost to operate a classroom. Per-student funding would provide a base amount of money for each student, with a total calculated through the state’s attendance-based formula. The new method would go into effect next fiscal year, if lawmakers give their blessing. 

“This type of funding more truly reflects what our districts need for our students,” Critchfield told the House Education Committee Friday. 

Per-student funding was inspired by a task force involving policymakers and education leaders, which met last year, Critchfield said. Local education leaders are hoping for “the ability to control their own budgets,” and “this was an area of their budget that we could do this with,” she said. 

The bill makes an incremental short-term change, while promising more changes in the future. A few paragraphs of “legislative intent” call for a weighted per-student formula that generates additional funds for districts with higher-cost special needs students. Moreover, the bill would declare intent to revise the school budget’s payment schedule. 

House Education voted to introduce the bill following a flurry of questions. 

Rep. Lori McCann, R-Lewiston, asked how the new metric interplays with a significant gap in the $330 million promised to schools in 2022. Critchfield has asked for $162 million to plug the hole, which was primarily caused by a recent shift from enrollment-based funding to a model based on lower attendance numbers. Budget-setting lawmakers have yet to consider that request

Critchfield told McCann that the new bill would allow schools to “maximize their access” to the additional funding approved last session. “This policy bill provides us a vehicle for the future so that we don’t come back to this place year after year having left money on the table,” she said. 

Rep. Lance Clow, meanwhile, doubted that the new bill’s fiscal note was sufficient and threatened to oppose the legislation if the note isn’t addressed. The fiscal note says per-student discretionary funding “causes no additional expenditure of funds” at the state level, but it also says no district would receive less funding with the per-student model than it did with the support unit model. 

“If we did not increase the total appropriation amount from one year to the next, but we just changed the formula, somehow or other there’s a fiscal impact,” said Clow, R-Twin Falls. “There’s going to be schools that need to get more money to make up the difference.”

The bill could return for a public hearing in the coming days. Legislative leaders have said they hope to adjourn the session by the end of the month. 

Pronouns bill passes House on party lines

Voting along party lines, the House passed a bill banning the forced use of titles and pronouns that are “inconsistent with (a) person’s sex.”

House Bill 538 would apply to school employees and students alike, extending what the bill’s sponsor called a vital protection under the First Amendment.

“This particular agenda has gotten somewhat out of hand,” said Rep. Ted Hill, R-Eagle. “If we don’t put this back in the box, what’s next?”

The bill would address recurring concerns that have come up in Southeast Idaho schools, said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls. She said she has heard from parents who have attended a school event, only to learn that their child is using a new name or gender identity. “That’s not how a parent should learn their child is struggling with their identity.”

During floor debate, Democrats raised a range of concerns.

Rep. John Gannon, a Boise Democrat and an attorney, said the bill offered no avenue for parties to seek mediation. Instead, the bill allows public employees and students to seek civil damages. “I don’t think lawsuits are a good remedy for disputes like this.”

Rep. Lauren Necochea, D-Boise, pointed out that government employees are already expected to treat other people with respect, avoiding racial slurs or sexually offensive language. “What we’re talking about here is government employees doing their jobs.”

Friday’s vote came after the House abruptly put the HB 538 debate on hold. The House adjourned after Hill suffered what he described as a low blood pressure episode with symptoms similar to a stroke. Hill briefly discussed the matter on the House floor Friday, saying he’s had recent health issues stemming from cancer, but he did not have a stroke.

“I’m not giving up,” he said. “If I’m bleeding out of my ears, I’m not tapping out.”

Reactions to Friday’s vote split along ideological lines. Blaine Conzatti of the conservative Idaho Family Policy Center said HB 538 would protect teachers who “are finding themselves ensnared in the trap of school pronoun policies.” Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates of Idaho labeled HB 538 the “don’t say they” bill.

With the House’s 58-11 vote, the bill now goes to the Senate.

Senate clears Empowering Parents updates

The Senate approved a bill to clarify eligible expenses for Empowering Parents microgrants and extend the timeframe for spending the money. 

Senate Bill 1358 would allow recipients to spend grant funding within three years rather than within the current two-year timeframe. It also would clarify that students can use the grants for fee programs, such as sports or FFA. 

The bill also clarifies that only Idaho students are eligible. Some Idaho-based parents have applied on behalf of out-of-state students, said sponsoring Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, told senators. “I know it seems a little silly that we have to say that, but that’s where we’re at.” 

Public and private school students are eligible for the microgrants. 

An earlier version of the bill also added homeschool co-op fees as an eligible expense. Den Hartog removed that provision after Homeschool Idaho, an advocacy group, opposed the funding. Read EdNews Reporter Darren Svan’s coverage here

During a Senate Education Committee hearing Tuesday, Democrats said they worried about opening the bill to amendments, fearing private school tuition could be added as an eligible expense.

Den Hartog, who sponsored an unsuccessful bill to create private tuition tax credits this session, said it wasn’t her intent to add tuition as an Empowering Parents expense. But she stopped short of agreeing to an amendment to SB 1358 that explicitly precluded tuition from being added in the future.

After a 30-2 Senate vote bill now heads to the House.

Other education votes from Friday

Wrapping up the week, lawmakers voted on several other education-related bills Friday:

State Board appointments. The Senate OK’d House Bill 644, which sets up geographic regions for the seven appointed spots on the State Board of Education. This means, in general, that a governor would have to choose board members by region. With the 31-1 Senate vote, this bill now goes to Gov. Brad Little.

State Board budget. The vote was closer when the Senate took up a “special programs” budget for the State Board. The bulk of the $936,000 budget would support a rural schools incentives program, which helps teachers repay student loans or continue their education. House Bill 692 passed on a 23-10 vote, and goes to Little.

Advanced Opportunities. The House voted 66-2 to approve a bill that hikes the maximum Advanced Opportunities program allowance for private school students to $2,500, a 233% increase. Senate Bill 1359 heads to the governor’s desk.

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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