Statehouse roundup, 3.7.24: Late-session school choice push in motion

Lawmakers will consider a school choice bill in the waning weeks of the legislative session, GOP leaders said Thursday. 

The session’s only high-stakes bill that falls under the loose heading of school choice — a catchall term that describes directing taxpayer funds to private education — has stalled in a House committee. But House Republicans still want to vote on the issue, said Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star. 

“You’ll see a push,” he said. “I don’t know if it gets through.”

There could be a different proposal than House Bill 447, a $50 million tax credit program that covers private school tuition. That bill was introduced in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee in January, but it hasn’t had a hearing, signaling it doesn’t have the committee’s support. 

A separate, forthcoming bill would instead “slightly” expand the existing Empowering Parents program to include private school tuition, according to Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder. 

“We have the money to do a lot of really good things,” said Winder, R-Boise. “I think this is a high priority to allow some expansion of the Empowering Parents program.” 

Republican leaders have sent mixed signals on the $30 million Empowering Parents program, which offers households up to $3,000 for education-related supplies, like laptops and tutoring.

Early in the session, Alex Adams, Gov. Brad Little’s budget chief, said Empowering Parents could be on the chopping block after lawmakers recommended a conservative revenue forecast for the upcoming fiscal year. Budget-writers adopted this conservative revenue forecast Wednesday. However, the governor’s office declined to say whether the program is still in danger. 

Meanwhile, Winder said Thursday that there’s room to expand the program to $50 million or more. Little has been wary of school choice proposals that siphon money from public schools, but expects he’ll be more supportive of the upcoming policy that has sideboards. 

“There’ll be limitations on it,” Winder said. 

Democrats remain averse. “Obviously it’s something our caucus will oppose,” said House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, pointing to tuition assistance programs elsewhere that have blown holes in state budgets. 

“We’re in the hostage-taking phase of the session,” Rubel said. “I don’t know how many hostages will be held, and for how long, in order to try to get something like this through, but it’s a deep concern.”

Bill targeting public funds for teachers’ unions falls

The House narrowly rejected a bill blocking public funds from going to teachers’ unions  — after a spirited debate that included unusual attempts by lawmakers to change their votes.

House Bill 602 would have prohibited public schools from contributing taxpayer funds directly to teachers’ unions, offering paid leave for union events and padding teacher pay to cover union dues, among other things. 

“This bill is not a bill against teachers,” said sponsoring Rep. Dale Hawkins, R-Fernwood. “This bill isn’t a bill against unions.” 

Rep. Greg Lanting disagreed. Amid a teacher shortage, unions help inexperienced teachers become classroom-ready, said Lanting, R-Twin Falls. The bill “feels like an attempt to weaken the very group that’s helping us with the teachers who need help,” he said. 

Lanting, a retired school administrator, and other House Education Committee members commanded Thursday’s debate, arguing both for and against the bill. But most members were against it, which is notable because the legislation got to the House floor after easily clearing the State Affairs Committee. House Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star, has the discretion to assign bills to committees. 

House Education members voted 10-6 against HB 602. 

“I have heard from so many teachers in my district and across the state that are urging us to not support this bill, because they see this as an affront against them,” said committee vice chair Rep. Lori McCann, R-Lewiston. 

After the bill failed, two Republicans sought to change their “no” votes to “yes.” Reps. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, and Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston, said they mistakenly opposed the bill. “I definitely made a mistake,” Ehardt said. “I would ask for your grace on this.”

The House rejected Ehardt’s motion to reconsider the bill so she could change her vote. Some argued against it because they haven’t been offered the same opportunity previously. That included Rep. Brooke Green, D-Boise, who last year accidentally voted in favor of overriding the governor’s veto of a bill restricting access to library books. “I honestly made a mistake and was not given the grace that the good lady is asking for.”

Bill narrowing scope of Launch eligibility heads to Senate floor 

A bill to narrow the list of training programs that qualify for Idaho Launch is advancing with bipartisan support. The proposal could help ease concern with the program among hesitant Republicans, according to House Speaker Mike Moyle. 

The Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee Thursday endorsed Senate Bill 1390. Sen. Dave Lent’s bill redefines “in-demand” as it relates to workforce training that’s eligible for the $8,000 scholarships. 

Currently, qualifying variables are jobs that are in-demand and have a high growth rate, which has fostered some “odd combinations,” said Lent, R-Idaho Falls. For instance, the formula identified waitress as an in-demand career that would qualify for tuition assistance. 

“As we worked through the numbers this year, it was obvious that we needed to tighten that up,” Lent said. 

The new definition would allow for a “matrix of careers and training programs” qualifying for Launch based on their: 

  • Number of openings.
  • Growth rate.
  • Transferability of skills. 
  • Program length.
  • Wage potential. 

Also, the bill would exclude careers that require a master’s degree. 

The Senate committee voted to advance the bill with two Republicans opposed. It now heads to the Senate floor. 

The proposed policy change will run parallel to an Idaho Launch funding bill that recently cleared the Legislature’s budget committee with little resistance. Last year, a bill creating Launch cleared the House by one vote after most Republicans opposed it. 

Moyle, no fan of Launch himself, said there’s still trepidation among House Republicans, but narrowing the qualifying programs could ease those concerns. The new bill “will hopefully start the ball rolling, and we can find a solution to put some sideboards around this thing so it doesn’t turn into a whole donnybrook,” Moyle said. 

Still, program oversight by the Idaho Workforce Development Council — a mostly unelected group of industry leaders — is “one of the biggest concerns,” Moyle said, and there are discussions in the House about addressing that. 

“There ought to be some legislative oversight, somebody who’s elected and not a whole bunch of big business guys making those decisions,” he said. “I don’t know that anything will come to a head until that funding hits the floor.”

Outcomes-based funding plan advances

State superintendent Debbie Critchfield’s outcomes-based funding plan cleared the House Thursday — but not without reluctance. 

The state would send $40 million of new money to school districts next fiscal year. The funds would be tied to student achievement in math and college and career readiness. “It’s an innovative step forward for the state of Idaho,” said sponsoring Rep. James Petzke, R-Meridian. 

The House approved the bill on a close 41-28 vote. Conservative hardliners argued that existing  school support should be tied to outcomes, and they doubted additional money would motivate better test scores. “We’re just beating the same dead horse,” said Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens. 

The bill now heads to the Senate. 

House approves bills on Phoenix-like deals, school board quorums, State Board budgets

State-funded agencies, offices and institutions could soon have to notify the Legislature and local media when before most purchases of $25 million or more. 

House Bill 691 appears to be inspired by the University of Idaho’s bid to purchase the University of Phoenix, a $685 million deal that caught lawmakers off guard. 

But it wouldn’t impact the Phoenix deal. Co-sponsoring Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said it has no “retroactive effect” if it becomes law on July 1. 

State-awarded contracts in a bidding process, emergency expenditures, legal settlements and Legislature-approved expenses would be exempt from the proposed law.

The House also endorsed a bill helping school boards conduct business when there’s a trustee vacancy. 

House Bill 645 would redefine a school board quorum as the majority of seated members rather than total board seats. 

It also would clarify that a board vacancy is official when a county commission certifies a recall election, and it would bar recalled trustees from voting on board contracts between a recall election day and the county commission’s election certification.

Rep. Mark Sauter’s bill addresses a controversy from the West Bonner School District last year when recalled trustees tried to hold a special meeting to consider contracts before the election was certified. 

“It’s just a short period of time where … they’d be suspended from those high-level decisions,” said Sauter, R-Sandpoint. 

And House members passed two State Board of Education budgets. 

House Bill 692 would fund the State Board’s special programs, including $750,000 for Rural Educator Incentive program along with 2% merit raises for special programs employees. 

House Bill 693 would fund the State Board’s Division of Career Technical Education. The $2.25 million enhancement budget would fund program expansions and additional staff along with merit raises for current employees. 

These House-approved bills now head to the Senate.

Ryan Suppe

Ryan Suppe

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business for newspapers in the Treasure Valley and Eastern Idaho. A Nevada native, Ryan enjoys golf, skiing and movies. Follow him on Twitter: @ryansuppe. Contact him at [email protected]

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