Statehouse roundup, 3.8.23: Idaho Launch ‘trailer bill’ covers its first mile

As expected, a bill to rework the Idaho Launch postsecondary incentives program made its debut Wednesday morning.

With no discussion, the Senate State Affairs Committee introduced the bill, a unanimous vote that could set the stage for a full hearing at a later date.

The bill makes three key changes to Idaho Launch — Gov. Brad Little’s controversial plan to provide high school graduates with $8,500, which they can use for college, career-technical education or workforce training.

  • It reduces the initial cost estimate to $60 million to $70 million. House Bill 24, the initial Idaho Launch bill, pegs the program costs at $102 million.
  • It requires students to pay something toward their postsecondary programs. Idaho Launch would pay up to 85% of a student’s tuition and fees or $8,500, whichever is less.
  • The state’s Workforce Development Council would be required to file an annual report to the Legislature. Among other items, the annual report would require “data to demonstrate the effectiveness of the program,” including completion rates and “retention rates,” namely, the number of students who remained in Idaho after their studies.

The bill — known as a “trailer bill” in Statehouse lingo — came up Tuesday afternoon, as the Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee took up HB 24. The committee ended up sending HB 24 to the Senate floor, where it could be amended.

Pieces of the new bill could be amended into HB 24. Or the new bill could run as a companion to HB 24.

Either way, components from the new bill would have to pass the Senate and go to the House, which narrowly passed the original HB 24 in February.

Trustee training bill dies in House

One of state superintendent Debbie Critchfield’s top legislative priorities died on the House floor Wednesday.

On a 39-30 vote, lawmakers rejected House Bill 268, a proposal to ramp up training for school trustees.

Supporters said the $1.5 million plan — including an $848,000 funding increase, proposed by Critchfield — would help trustees avoid costly lawsuits and drive student achievement.

Rep. Greg Lanting, a Twin Falls Republican and retired school administrator, said volunteer trustees are untrained in topics such as open meeting law. Lanting said he has sat in on three- to four-hour closed executive sessions that strayed far from what the law allows. “They covered everything from A to Z.”

Opponents took issue with language requiring a newly elected or appointed trustee to get training within 60 days — despite sponsors’ assurances that the training would be optional. Rep. Douglas Pickett, R-Oakley, argued that the training could give outsiders an outsized influence over school policy, usurping locally elected trustees.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, co-sponsored the bill with Critchfield.

House passes abstinence definition bill

Voting along party lines, the House passed a bill defining abstinence in schools.

House Bill 228 would define abstinence as “the absence of any sexual activity prior to marriage.” The bill is needed, according to its sponsor, since some sex education curriculum define abstinence in terms of prevention pregnancy or STDs.

“We’re only defining a traditional word in a very traditional sense,” said Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls.

During brief debate, Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, said the bill could send a dangerous message to kids, suggesting that married people need not worry about STDs.

With the 57-11 House vote, HB 228 now heads to the Senate.

‘Silent prayer’ bill derailed

Senate State Affairs sidetracked a House-passed bill that seeks to protect “public silent prayer” in schools.

On a party-line vote, the committee sent House Bill 182 to the floor for possible amendments.

Sponsored by Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, the bill says “an employee of a public college, school district, or charter school may pray at any time he is otherwise free to engage in personal conversations or other personal conduct.” HB 182 responds to — and cites — the case of Joseph Kennedy, a Washington state high school football coach, who was fired after leading players in prayer on the playing field. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kennedy’s favor in 2022.

Senators seemed to have two concerns about the bill. They questioned a clause in the bill which would allow an employee to seek a civil action against a school. They also questioned whether the bill simply allowed “silent” prayer.

Ehardt said she believed freedom of religion “is about your ability to take to your religion to the public square.. … Your freedom of speech is also your freedom of religion.”

Mark Thornton — the pastor for Boise State University’s football team, who joined Ehardt in presenting the bill — expressed similar sentiments.

“Most prayer is not necessarily silent,” said Thornton, who was targeted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation after he led a prayer on the 50-yard line after a 2020 game.

Sen. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, pushed to kill the bill in committee, saying conspicuous prayer in school will make some students feel excluded. “This will just put that on steroids.”

If the amended bill passes the Senate, it would have to go back to the House for another vote.

Career technical education legislation sails through committee

State superintendent Debbie Critchfield’s $50 million plan to reinforce career technical education across the state cleared another hurdle Wednesday morning.

House Bill 267 would create the Idaho Career Ready Students Program — a $45 million initiative designed to incentivize public middle and high schools to partner with local industry leaders and boost CTE curriculum, especially in rural and remote regions of the state, with funding for one-time capital projects. The bill also includes $5 million in funding to help bridge a gap in CTE funding.

The bill generated support from the Idaho Forest Group, Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry and the Idaho Agricultural Teachers Association during Wednesday’s House Education Committee meeting.

Shawn Dygert, an agriculture teacher at Kuna High School, described HB 267 as a “huge benefit.”

“We’re struggling every day…to keep our shops open, our greenhouses running,” Dygert said.

Most committee members supported the legislation, but Rep. Dale Hawkins questioned whether CTE is the best use of taxpayer dollars. Hawkins, R-Fernwood, said industries should pay for their own trainings and state money should be directed to fund school facilities.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Josh Wheeler, R-Ammon, clarified that the bill won’t pay for industry training; it is intended to expose students to their career options and potentially spark interest. Critchfield added that allocating money to CTE could free up other money for facilities needs. 

The committee sent the bill to the House floor with a 14-1 vote. Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, was absent.

Homeschool, sex education bills stall in committee

Two bills stalled in the House Education Committee Wednesday morning.

Defining homeschooling

Committee Chair Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, brought forward a bill that seeks to clarify the definition of homeschooling. Endorsed by Homeschool Idaho, House Bill 225 defines homeschooling as education provided and paid for by a parent or guardian. Families who educate at home and accept state or federal funding would be legally excluded from the definition.

With the emergence of microschools, learning pods, public-private bridge programs and other methods of educating at home, the definition of homeschooling has gotten murky, said Homeschool Idaho board member Audra Talley. The goal, according to Homeschool Idaho representatives, is to ensure homeschoolers cannot be touched by government regulation.

But the bill hit some roadblocks in committee.

Rep. Greg Lanting, R-Twin Falls, said the bill would prevent homeschool students from participating in sports in their local school districts, though one Homeschool Idaho representative argued the opposite. Rep. Dale Hawkins, R-Fernwood, shared the concern about athletics.

Lanting and Rep. Stever Berch, D-Boise, mentioned concerns about a clause of the bill that would allow a homeschool parent to take action against a state agency or school district for violating the law.

The committee voted unanimously to hold HB 225 in committee. A revised version of the bill could return to the committee at a later date.

Opt-in sex education

A sex ed “opt-in” bill will return to House Education Thursday, after the committee voted to hold the bill before quickly adjourning Wednesday morning.

House Bill 272 would require written parental permission for children to take a sex education course. Currently, sex education isn’t mandatory in Idaho — the law allows parents to opt their children out of sex ed.

But that isn’t enough, according to bill co-sponsor Rep. Elaine Price, R-Coeur d’Alene.

An opt-in policy, she said, would put parents in the driver’s seat, instead of relying on kids to bring home an opt-out slip, which can easily be lost.

Chaleena Dean, a Canyon County parent, said her daughter was traumatized by her school’s sex education curriculum, Reducing the Risk. The opt-out form, she said, wasn’t emailed to her until after the class had started.

“Regardless of the standards that are set forth, I am the parent. I don’t co-parent with the government,” Dean said, balking at a comment from Rep. Soñia Galaviz, D-Boise, about the bill’s impact on state standards.

Nora Morse, a representative from Planned Parenthood, testified against the bill.

“This bill is not about parental rights,” Morse said. Instead, she labeled it an attack on sex education, academic freedom and LGBTQ youth in Idaho.

Committee members debated the bill for around 20 minutes, but ran short on time after a lengthy morning meeting. Members voted 15-1 to hold the bill until Thursday.

“Throwing something out the door without finishing discussion doesn’t do it justice,” said Rep. Jack Nelsen, R-Jerome, who suggested holding the bill.

Another sex ed bill moves forward

A bill prohibiting sex education before 5th grade is headed to the House, after a party line vote in the Senate.

Bill sponsor Sen. Ben Toews, R-Coeur d’Alene, called the Senate Bill 1071 a “common sense” bill Wednesday afternoon. While schools generally don’t teach sex education prior to fifth grade discussions on basic anatomy, Toews said the bill is preventative. It would proactively prevent harm from societal “trends” of concern, according to Toews.

Senate democrats spoke against the bill, arguing it could prevent teachers from having necessary conversations with children about sexual abuse or menstruation.

The bill passed 28-7.

More moves from the House

The House quickly moved through two more education bills.

  • A bill amending the Armed Forces and Public Safety Officer Scholarship easily passed the House Wednesday morning. After a 65-5 vote, House Bill 219 now heads to the Senate.
  • A bill brought forward by the State Board of Education died in the House Wednesday. House Bill 243 would have allowed the State Board to alter teacher certification standards to align with current law, by removing the standards from Idaho Code and inserting them into rule. The bill failed 31-39.

Kevin Richert and Sadie Dittenber

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