Idaho Senate barely revives controversial early education grant. Will House follow?

Kevin Richert and Blake Jones
·7 min read

A sharply divided Senate approved a federal early education grant — sending the idea back to an equally split House of Representatives.

Monday’s 18-17 Senate vote reflected the Statehouse split on the early education proposal, which would allow the State Board of Education and the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children to collaborate on a three-year, $6 million-per-year grant rollout.

Supporters again said the grant would allow local communities to come up with their own plans to better prepare kids for kindergarten.

“This is about helping our children learn to read and write,” said Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland. “It takes a long time to help students remediate these deficits.”

Opponents objected to language in the bill, which would allow the money to go to programs benefiting children from birth to 5 years old. And they again said the grant would open the door to indoctrinating young children into programs such as critical race theory — the crux of an equally divisive debate over higher education funding.

“Why would we even consider even letting this slip into our young children?” said Sen. Regina Bayer, R-Meridian.

Senate Bill 1193, the second version of the early education grant bill, was written to try to appease concerns from Statehouse conservatives. The bill puts local early education collaboratives in charge of making curriculum decisions. It also says local collaboratives must be “financially self-sufficient” at the conclusion of the federal grant.

In her opening debate, floor sponsor Janie Ward-Engelking emphasized that the grant would support locally based startups.

“Unfortuantely, some of the information you have received has been misguided, misunderstood, or simply not true,” said Ward-Engelking, D-Boise.

That didn’t head off the debate, however, which stretched for nearly an hour — and often centered on questions of trust and local control.

Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, said she had visited one of her area’s local cooperatives, and found nothing concerning at the preschool. However, she said she was worried that the bill and the legislative “intent language” didn’t go far enough on curriculum.

Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder said he supported helping families meet needs, which begin at birth.

“I think this is an important program,” said Winder, R-Boise. “I trust our local people.”

The Senate’s narrow passage now sends SB 1193 to the House — and, quite possibly, another nail-biter of a vote. On March 2, a deeply split House rejected the first version of the early education grant bill. That forced the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to go back and write a second version of the bill, the version the Senate passed Monday.

Advanced opportunities program expands

A state program that helps students pay for Advanced Placement exams, dual-credit college-level classes and career technical education classes will now be extended to private and parochial school students, pending gubernatorial approval.

Idaho’s rapidly growing advanced opportunities program pays up to $4,125 per student for such programs. After Senate Bill 1045 cleared the House on Monday and the Senate earlier this year, students at private and parochial schools could now receive up to $750 for the same purposes.

In the Senate, some lawmakers hesitated to approve growing the program as its enrollment has exceeded its budget in recent years. But the change sailed through the House, 66-1, after no debate.

Funding for the private school program would also be capped at $750,000, and the state would not dip into budget reserves to cover any additional coursework. And private school students would receive no more than $75 per credit on a dual-credit course, which means students and parents might have to pick up any costs the state doesn’t cover, Idaho EdNews previously reported.

Gov. Brad Little is seeking $29.5 million for advanced opportunities next year, a $9.5 million increase. (Little’s request does not include money for private school students.)

Committee OKs bill calling for school trustee elections

Lawmakers are looking at a bill to address the aftermath of school trustee recalls.

House Bill 350 would require elections to replace trustees who are recalled — or resign in the face of a recall. Voters would choose a new trustee at the next regularly scheduled election. If a recall or resignation takes place more than 90 days before an election, boards can appoint a temporary replacement.

The goal is to prevent boards and special-interest groups from hand-picking a successor after a divisive recall election, said Rep. Barbara Ehardt, a co-sponsor.

“This is tearing communities apart,” said Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls.

Moving quickly Monday morning, the House State Affairs Committee sent HB 350 to the floor on a unanimous voice vote.

Health education budget approved despite opposition

An annual budget that funds a collection of medical education programs in Idaho and surrounding states passed the Idaho House on Monday, but not without complaints.

Senate Bill 1175 earmarks money for longstanding partnerships between the state of Idaho and out-of-state institutions with the aim of increasing the number of doctors, dentists and veterinarians practicing in the state. One of those agreements, WWAMI, was front and center in debate over the budget.

WWAMI is a deal between the University of Washington Medical School and surrounding states — Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, as the acronym denotes — that gives regional students priority status in applying to the medical school. Idaho enrollees also complete part of their education through the University of Idaho. The program is set to receive $6.9 million in Idaho tax money next fiscal year in the new budget, which made it a tipping point for SB 1175’s backers and critics.

“These are great programs, and I support the programs,” said Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, “but I have one issue, and it’s one of the reasons I vote against this bill and have for a lot of years. The issue is: We’re subsidizing these students to go get these great educations, but they’re not coming back to Idaho. WWAMI (is) a great program, but half of them come back to Idaho.”

Defending the program budget, Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, argued the budget’s add of 13 new residency positions in East Idaho will help the state retain doctors.

“Kids are much more likely to settle in the state where they do their residency than they are to leave and come back, perhaps to Idaho. So this allows us to expand those medical residency programs,” she said. “What we’re suggesting here is an investment in the residency program, which is really one of the largest deciding factors of where these doctors end up going.”

The bill passed 38-29, with House leadership split.

The budget also renews an agreement with the University of Utah’s medical school, in which the school reserves 10 seats for Idaho applicants each admission cycle. Through WWAMI, 40 seats are reserved for Idaho residents at the University of Washington.

‘Workforce readiness’ diplomas OK’d

In an effort to encourage students to enroll in career-technical education classes, the Legislature will now allow high schools to offer “workforce readiness” diplomas.

Students earning the new diploma would have to meet a set of requirements demonstrating their proficiency in a career technical field. They could also replace senior math and English courses with practical math and technical writing courses, which focus on the study areas’ applications to skilled trades, among other lines of work.

It’s “a way to keep kids engaged all the way through high school,” through curriculum related to their career field of choice, said Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth.

After unanimously passing the House Monday, the legislation goes to the governor’s desk.