Statehouse roundup, 3.7.23: Proposal to repeal Blaine Amendment resurfaces

Updated 3:26 p.m., to correct the standing of the restraints bill. 

A new proposal to repeal Idaho’s “Blaine Amendment” resurfaced Tuesday.

The amendment — which prohibits the use of public dollars to support religious enterprises, including schools — has been a recurring theme in Idaho’s ongoing debate over school choice.

The House sponsor, Coeur d’Alene Republican Rep. Elaine Price, argued that recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings have effectively rendered the Blaine Amendment moot. In essence, the rulings say that if states put public dollars into private schools, they cannot discriminate against religious-based schools.

“We are getting rid of something that is not applicable anymore,” Price said.

The House State Affairs Committee voted to introduce the proposal, after brief debate. Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said lawmakers should consider whether state-funded parochial schools would be able to opt out of state-mandated testing. “What are the consequences as far as giving money to religious institutions?”

State Affairs’ vote could set the stage for a full committee hearing at a later date.

As a proposed constitutional amendment, Price’s proposal faces a daunting path to passage. The proposal would need to pass both houses by two-thirds majorities in order to qualify for the November 2024 ballot.

Price’s proposed amendment is co-sponsored by Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa. Lenney presented a similar proposal in the Senate Education Committee. More than a month later, it has not received a hearing.

Committee introduces new bill calling for State Board elections

A week after a House committee rejected his proposal calling for State Board of Education elections, Rep. Joe Alfieri was back at it Tuesday.

The Coeur d’Alene Republican presented a new bill calling for direct election of State Board members — positions now filled through gubernatorial appointments.

Alfieri’s new bill is much like its predecessor. It would call for electing State Board members by geographic region. Candidates would declare party affiliation. Elected State Board members would receive a $12,000 annual stipend (appointed board members now are volunteers). The state superintendent would chair the State Board.

Alfieri made one change. At the outset, State Board members would be elected to staggered two- and four-year terms, to prevent a complete turnover on the board. Eventually, all State Board members would be elected to four-year terms.

The issue of staggered terms did not come up Wednesday, when the House Education Committee rejected Aliferi’s bill.

House State Affairs voted to introduce the new bill, which could come back for a full hearing at a later date.

A new definition of abstinence heads to the House floor

The House Education Committee heard a bill Tuesday morning that seeks to redefine abstinence.

According to bill sponsor Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, House Bill 228 is a parental rights bill — it seeks to ensure parents aren’t misled about what’s in their school’s sex education curriculum.

At the heart of the bill is Reducing the Risk (RTR) — a state-provided sex education curriculum utilized by around 14 school districts in Idaho. RTR (and, by association, the Department of Health and Welfare) has come under attack from opponents like the Idaho Freedom Foundation for teaching a “New Abstinence” curriculum.

The curriculum defines abstinence as refraining from any activity that could cause pregnancy or the transmission of STDs. But sexual activity conducted while engaging in proper use of contraceptives is included in the definition.

Ehardt said curriculum’s definition has caused confusion.

“We are deceiving parents,” she told the committee Tuesday.

HB 228 would define abstinence in Idaho Code as the absence of sexual activity, prior to marriage, that could:

  • Cause pregnancy.
  • Result in the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases or infections.
  • Present emotional risks.

The intent, according to Ehardt, is not to remove the RTR curriculum from schools, but to label it a safe sex curriculum, rather than an abstinence curriculum.

Reps. Chris Mathias and Steve Berch, both D-Boise, had issues with the bill. Mathias said including “prior to marriage” in the definition could give students the wrong idea — that marriage will absolve them of any consequences of sexual activity. Berch said terms like “private” and “intimate” are open to wide interpretations, potentially causing confusion for teachers and administrators trying to teach their curriculum.

The committee voted 14-2 to send the bill to the House floor.

Committee approves three more bills

Three additional bills advanced out of the House Education Committee Tuesday.

Career exploration. Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, presented a bill that would require career exploration classes for middle schoolers. The goal, he said, is to get students interested in their future at an early age, and help parents engage with their child’s career interests.

House Bill 269 passed the committee 11-4. Ehardt was absent for the vote.

School board trainings. Lent also brought forward House Bill 268, which would require trainings for all school board trustees and charter school board members. The bill is one of state superintendent Debbie Critchfield’s goals for her time in office.

HB 268 is an effort to boost school board engagement, data literacy, accountability and transparency — alongside student achievement scores, according to Lent. The lawmaker said districts with the highest student achievement are often those whose trustees attend now-optional school board trainings.

Quinn Perry from the Idaho School Boards Association said the ISBA, one of a few organizations qualified to offer school board trainings, is neutral on the bill,  but supports school board trainings.

The bill got some opposition from committee members because it would disband the governor’s commission for education excellence, created last year. Lent, who was involved with the legislation that established the commission, said it hasn’t been successful.

HB 268 passed the committee 10-5. Ehardt was absent for the vote.

Charter changes. A charter bill advanced Tuesday with a unanimous vote.

House Bill 113 would accomplish a few goals. It would:

  • Allow authorizers to consider a school’s student population during certification and recertification. If a school has an at-risk population, for example, it could receive additional support or leniency from authorizers.
  • Allow local school districts to authorize virtual charter schools. This is a clarification to the law, codifying what is already being practiced.
  • Clarify that education services providers (ESPs) must charge a fee.
  • Clarify that contracts between ESPs and charters should be considered favorably if they result in the ESP forgiving a charter’s debt if the charter is unable to pay it back. This would codify a practice currently in use — Idaho Virtual Academy contracts with third-party vendor Stride to have its debt forgiven unless the school ends the year with a surplus.

Restraints bill returns, sent to House floor

A bill defining restraints returned to the House Education Committee once again. Bill sponsor Rep. Marco Erickson, R-Idaho Falls, has reworked the bill several times over the past few weeks after hearing concerns from House committee members. The committee voted to print the most recent rendition Tuesday.

The bill defines the types of restraint and seclusion methods that can — and can’t — be used in schools. Tuesday’s version clarifies that neither corporal punishment nor chemical restraints can be used against students in Idaho schools. It also says that restraint and seclusion methods should not be used as discipline, but physical and mechanical restraint can be used if a student has placed anyone in “imminent danger of serious bodily harm.”

The bill also requires the State Department of Education to prepare trainings and guidance for schools, and that local school boards and charters develop policies relating to restraint and seclusion.

The bill was introduced and sent to the second reading calendar with a 13-3 vote. Reps. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene; Elaine Price, R-Coeur d’Alene; and Dale Hawkins, R-Fernwood, voted against the motion.


Kevin Richert and Sadie Dittenber

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