Statehouse roundup, 3.14.19

Items include funding formula bill; opportunity scholarship; controversial charter administrator bill; school turnaround bill

By Kevin Richert and Clark Corbin, Idaho Education News; originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on March 14, 2019

Senators spent 90 minutes Thursday discussing the mechanics — but not the merits — of a new K-12 funding formula.

That could change, and soon. The Senate Education Committee could hold a public hearing Monday on a complicated bill to overhaul the funding formula for the first time in a quarter century.

“It is our intention to move forward,” said Senate Education Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, at the conclusion of Thursday’s hearing.

But before trying to move forward, the committee moved slowly and cautiously. The committee walked through only 16 pages of the 65-page bill. At the outset, Mortimer asked committee members to focus on the structure of the bill, and avoid debating policy. At one point, he cut off a line of questioning that suggested the formula might encourage schools to hire beginning teachers.

“We’ll actually have those policy discussions, I’m sure, multiple times,” Mortimer said.

A funding formula rewrite — if it indeed occurs this session — would have far-ranging impacts on education policy. It would fundamentally change the way the state carves up more than $1.8 billion for K-12 — for teacher salaries, employee benefits, school buses, classroom technology and myriad other expenses.

As Senate Education worked through the wording of the funding formula bill, Senate Bill 1196, a few familiar themes came into focus:

  • The bill will run much of the K-12 money through the new formula, but not every dollar. Some specific K-12 line items will remain as standalones — such as $36.5 million for classroom technology, $15 million for the advanced opportunities program that allows high school students to take college-level classes and $7.9 million to help charter schools offset their building costs.
  • The bill emphasizes a piece of policy that has been in place since 2015 when the Legislature passed the five-year, $250 million career ladder to boost teacher salaries. A district or charter “may but is not required to conform its local salary schedule to the amounts provided in the state career ladder schedule.”
  • And the bill sets up a slow transition to the new formula. For three years, schools and charters will receive at least a 2 percent annual funding increase — a “hold positive” provision, in the lexicon of the funding formula.

None of these concepts are new. They’ve all been discussed, to some extent, during the three years that lawmakers have spent reviewing the current funding formula, and preparing for a change to a model that hinges on student enrollment numbers.

But after that three-year discussion, the funding formula bill is now on a fast track.

The bill was only introduced Wednesday morning, in a brief and perfunctory hearing.

And while Senate Education took no public comments Thursday, Mortimer has reserved the Lincoln Auditorium — the Statehouse’s largest meeting room — for a Monday afternoon public hearing.

The committee might have no more than two hours for a hearing, before the Senate holds a late-afternoon floor session. Testimony might be limited to two to three minutes per person, Mortimer said.

And then, at some point, lawmakers will have to go from talking mechanics to discussing merits.

“We’re weren’t here today to discuss whys,” Mortimer said.

Opportunity scholarship

The Senate also approved a State Board of Education special programs budget that would expand funding for the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship by $7 million.

The funding boost is designed to help the state meet unmet demand for the popular scholarship. The state currently has $13.5 million to award in scholarships. But even with that funding, there is a waiting list of more than 3,400 eligible students who did not receive a scholarship because the funding wasn’t there.

Pushing for the expansion was one of Gov. Brad Little’s top education priorities this year. State officials estimate that by increasing the funding pool to $20.5 million, the state could pay for up to 2,000 more scholarships.

The Senate voted 31-2 to pass the specials programs budget in Senate Bill 1193. Only Sens. Regina Bayer and Lori Den Hartog, both R-Meridian, voted against the bill. The budget bill heads next to the House for consideration.

School turnaround bill

A voluntary proposal designed to help low-performing schools turn things around is heading to the House floor following a long, convoluted hearing Thursday morning in the House Education Committee.

Sen. Dean Mortimer

Mortimer sponsored Senate Bill 1029. If passed, the bill would allow the lowest performing 5 percent of schools to voluntarily develop a local committee and enter into partnerships with education experts to develop turnaround plans, so long as they make a three-year commitment.

Mortimer said his bill would use existing State Board funding sources of $750,000 and $ 1 million to pay for the turnaround program.

Several committee members raised questions about the bill.

They argued about whether it was more appropriate to have the State Department of Education, as opposed to the State Board, oversee the program. Some legislators also pushed for more accountability to be baked into the program. And Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, continued to ask for a flow chart that would illustrate the movement of state dollars in the education budgets and explain the relationship between government agencies and various education groups.

Following a 90-minute hearing, House Education voted 8-6 to send SB 1029 to the floor, but without recommendation. That in itself is a little unusual. In most cases, when a committee advances a bill to the floor, it does so with a recommendation the bill passes. That’s been the case with the overwhelming majority — if not all — of the bills House Education has previously sent to the floor.

Last year, a similar bill passed out of House Education before it was pulled from the floor and died.

Charter administrators’ certificate

The House passed a bill to create a new certificate for charter school administrators who do not have any education experience.

If signed into law, Senate Bill 1058 would grant flexibility to charter schools to hire administrators who do not hold a traditional public school administrator certificate. Instead of holding a traditional administrators certificate, charter administrators could be hired if they hold a bachelor’s degree, pass a background check, receive training on teacher evaluations, are recommended by a charter school board and possess a minimum amount of professional experience.

In contrast, current administrator requirements call for a principal to hold a master’s degree, while a superintendent must hold an education specialist degree, a doctorate degree or complete a comparable post-master’s sixth year program, according to an analysis performed by the Idaho attorney general’s office.

Sponsoring Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, said charters are laboratories of innovation and should be given flexibility to be creative.

“This just allows those charters to find the best administrator that will fit their mission,” Boyle said.

But opponents said the bill would lower the bar  for administrators and could lead to individuals with no education experience being put in charge of developing academic programs, setting education goals, mentoring teachers and evaluating educators.

“If anything, we should be increasing expectations, not lowering them,” Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, said.

Following a brief debate, the House passed the bill, 46-22.

SB 1058 passed the Senate 21-12 on Feb. 22. It now heads to Gov. Brad Little’s desk for final consideration. Last year, former Gov. Butch Otter vetoed a similar bill on the final day of the legislative session.

Senate approves SDE budget

Another education-related budget sailed through the Senate on Thursday morning.

This time, senators gave their unanimous support to House Bill 232, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s departmental budget.

Not to be confused with the seven K-12 budget bills — which the Senate passed unanimously Wednesday — this smaller budget bill doesn’t put money into the school system. Instead, the bill provides about $15.5 million from the state general fund for SDE operations.

The SDE budget has already passed the House, so it now heads to Little’s desk.

Charter facilities fund

The Senate voted unanimously to pass a bill designed to help charter schools in obtaining favorable financing on bonds for construction and facility improvements.

If passed into law, Senate Bill 1180 would create the public charter school facilities program fund. Sponsoring Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said the fund would create a credit enhancement that would help reduce the interest rates on bonds for qualifying charter schools.

Lowering the interest rates would, in turn, reduce the amount of taxpayer money that would go toward interest payments, freeing up more money for charters to invest in teachers or other educational needs.

Winder and Den Hartog said the fund would provide assurance to lenders who are concerned about a missed payment.

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