House passes rural teacher hiring bill; progress made on other education bills

Rep. Charlie Shepherd, R-Pollock

BOISE — Voting almost along party lines, the House passed a bill to grant rural school districts added flexibility in teacher hiring.

House Bill 221 would allow schools to issue local teaching certificates to fill their classroom vacancies. In order to qualify, an applicant need only hold a bachelor’s degree.

With Idaho schools short by about 600 teachers per year — and with the pandemic likely to place even greater pressure on rural schools and charter schools — HB 221 would provide needed hiring latitude, said Rep. Charlie Shepherd, R-Pollock, the bill’s sponsor.

“Our only option, unless we try something like this, is to not have a teacher in the classroom at all,” he said.

Thursday’s debate was a sequel of sorts to Friday’s House Education Committee hearing, with eight of the 15 members taking to the floor.

Committee Vice Chairman Ryan Kerby — a New Plymouth Republican and a retired school superintendent — said many rural districts struggle to attract teacher applicants. And often, he said, these applicants shuttle from one district to the next because they can’t work with people and get results in the classroom.

Democrats argued that HB 221 failed to address the root cause of Idaho’s teacher shortage: low teacher salaries. “This is applying a Band-Aid where heart surgery is required,” said Rep. John McCrostie, a teacher from Garden City.

The House passed HB 221 on a 54-13 vote, with Mountain Home Republican Matthew Bundy joining the chamber’s 12 Democrats in opposition. The bill now goes to the Senate.

House passes paperwork streamlining bill

The House moved quickly Thursday to pass a bill to streamline school reporting requirements.

Sponsored by Kerby, House Bill 222 would eliminate several reporting requirements. Schools would no longer need to develop college and career advising plans or turn in literacy intervention plans.

The bill would also streamline the state’s teacher evaluation process, and create a “state commission for education excellence” to review schools’ state-required continuous improvement plans.

Debate was limited, but Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, questioned the need for a new state commission. (The group’s two meetings per year would carry a $15,000 price tag.)

The House passed HB 222 on a 52-15 vote. It also goes to the Senate.

Clow introduces a bill to freeze charter facilities funding

House Education chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, introduced a bill to protect charter schools from cuts to their facilities funding if Idaho were to cut education spending.

Public charter schools, unlike traditional districts, can’t use bonds or levies to raise money for buildings. In 2013, the state created a Charter School Facilities Fund distributed in a per-student formula. But the fund has a catch: If the state cuts education spending, the charter school fund is reduced automatically. The state spends about $10 million a year on charter school facilities.

House Bill 264 would essentially freeze the current facilities fund formula, removing the requirement for that automatic decrease.

Education spending has only increased since 2013, so charters haven’t had to weather a decrease, Clow said, but the pandemic could have changed that. This spring, Gov. Brad Little asked for holdbacks on all budgets, including the education budget, before reversing course and restoring education funds.

If those holdbacks had triggered the automatic decrease in the charter facilities fund, schools stood to lose almost $2 million, Clow said. 

“In this past year, with the holdbacks the governor ordered … the question came up as to how that would have impacted this formula,” Clow said. “That question is what triggered in my mind whether we should get this changed, and freeze the formula where it was, so they wouldn’t experience an adverse affect of that action.”

Blake Youde with the Idaho Charter School Network spoke in favor of the bill, saying the fixed funding would give charters better predictability in their annual budget, and help them acquire better loan financing.

House Education members advanced the bill to the floor for a second reading.

Horman tweaks Strong Students Grant proposal to address homeschool concerns

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, proposed a new bill making small changes to her proposal for a Strong Students Grant and Strong Students Scholarship program. The bill would essentially relaunch a grant program that used federal stimulus funds to help families pay for the cost of education technology or online learning for K-12 students.

Horman’s current proposal, House Bill 215,  is on hold on the House floor. The new bill would tweak language to assuage homeschool advocates concerned that applying for the program could impose new restrictions on homeschooling.

The rewrite would explicitly state that nothing in the bill “shall be construed to give the state authority to regulate the education of non-public students.” It would also remove language about the state “auditing” the use of those grant funds, but families would still need to report how they spend the money.

Idaho has some of the most lenient homeschooling regulations in the country, a point House Education members made repeatedly Thursday.

Reaction to the bill itself was mixed. Many committee members said they were staunch supporters of homeschool freedom, and supported this bill as a way to offer funds to homeschool families without restricting what they could teach. When representatives questioned whether homeschool families even wanted the money, Horman pointed out that almost 5,000 homeschool students applied for similar Strong Families, Strong Students grant funds last fall.

“If you don’t want the funds, don’t apply,” Horman said. “There are many thousands of other families who, in order to have access to the resources they need to educate their families, do need assistance.”

John McCrostie, D-Garden City, said he would vote against the bill because it still contains a controversial $5 million for scholarships for nonpublic school students who previously attended public schools.  

The issue of state scholarships for students who don’t attend public schools has gained prominence following a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. Last summer, the high court ruled a Montana state scholarship program must be made available for students in private schools, including religious schools.

The scholarships, which opponents argue are akin to private school vouchers, drew lengthy debate during prior hearings  in the House Education Committee.

The rewritten bill now goes to the House floor for a potential vote.

Bill would require disclosure of vaccine exemptions in school communications

House Education also advanced a proposal from member Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, that would require schools to describe and cite Idaho’s vaccine exemptions whenever they send information to parents regarding immunizations. 

“I think this is important that parents are informed of what is in code already,” DeMordaunt said. “It respects parents’ rights to make choices regarding their children’s health.” 

House members voted to send the proposal straight to the House floor for a second reading, over objections from Reps. Steve Berch, D-Boise, and McCrostie, who wanted the bill to receive a full public hearing. 

“I don’t think the simplicity of a bill negates our responsibility and for that matter the desire to try and accommodate public input,” Berch said. 

Senate passes career-technical education budget

Plowing through a lengthy list of bills Thursday afternoon, the Senate approved a career-technical education budget for 2021-22.

At slightly more than $73 million in general fund dollars, the budget represents a 7 percent increase. The budget includes the bulk of a $4.75 million plan to expand secondary and postsecondary CTE programs and workforce training centers — a piece of Gov. Brad Little’s Building Idaho’s Future infrastructure plan.

With the Senate’s 34-0 vote, the budget heads to the House.

Idaho Education News covered Thursday’s hearings remotely.

This article was originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on March 4, 2021