Idaho House Fast Tracks Optional Full-Day Kindergarten Legislation

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A modified bill directing $72 million for early literacy initiatives cleared the House on Monday, bringing the state closer to expanding full-day kindergarten options.

Efforts to redirect some of a record state budget surplus into full-day kindergarten have resulted in a labyrinth of rival ideas, cross-rotunda talks, and problems to establish a compromise. As the 2022 congressional session approaches its conclusion, Monday’s development represents substantial progress toward enacting a plan.

Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, said the new House Bill 790 allows “school districts more flexibility on how they spend their money so they can get the kids to read,”

After the previous version looked to be in risk in the House a few days ago, lawmakers immediately introduced HB 790 on Friday. HB 790, which was passed 40-29 on Monday, is a hybrid of two bills: an earlier Senate measure that would change how K-3 literacy funding is distributed across schools, and another bill that would require school districts to explain how they plan to spend extra property tax levy money.

The bill has now cleared the House, where it faces its biggest legislative test yet, keeping Gov. Brad Little’s objective of funneling an additional $46.6 million towards early literacy alive. The fast-moving bill will be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday afternoon.

HB 790 would modify state financing to offer more literacy money to schools whose kids improve on the Idaho Reading Indicator rather than schools whose pupils struggle to read at grade level on a regular basis.

“We want results. We’ve changed how we’re asking (schools) to show those results,” said Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell. “I think it’s well worth the money to do that.”

HB 790 must still pass the Senate, which comfortably passed the measure in its original form. To enhance early literacy funding and fund Little’s idea, a separate appropriations bill would have to pass both chambers — something the House overlooked when approving all other K-12 budget legislation later Monday afternoon.

The House of Representatives’ discussion on HB 790 on Monday was tinged by budget worries.

Prior to voting no on the measure. The planned $72 million line item, said to Rep. Greg Ferch, R-Boise, is “an awful lot per student.”

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, criticized IRI test score drops during the epidemic, claiming that additional literacy spending would have resulted in better outcomes.

“(Declines) cannot be blamed on the pandemic,” he said.

In exchange for additional literacy money, some politicians want school districts to minimize their reliance on local property taxes. Proponents of HB 790 thought that by mandating more financial openness, disclosures of levy expenditure would soothe critics.

It’s unclear whether the rewriting had any effect on the vote totals. The 25-minute debate on Monday was shorter than previous debates on the subject, and the question of tax transparency was barely discussed.

Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls, voted no on the bill, claiming that it “opens the door wide open for full-day kindergarten,” a program he believes is not net helpful.

“We have not had that policy discussion and yet the bulldozer is coming down the sidewalk for full-day kindergarten,” Marshall said.

Idaho only gives districts money to conduct half-day kindergarten programs, but many districts already offer full-day programs using a combination of current literacy funds and other sources.

HB 790 would distribute half of the early literacy funds based on K-3 enrolment and the other half depending on how many kids are reading at grade level or progressing on the IRI from year to year. It would also offer greater funding to schools with a bigger percentage of economically disadvantaged kids by weighing them more strongly in its calculations.

It would also force school districts to declare how they intend to spend additional levies on the ballot. This requirement is nearly identical to a previous standalone bill that would have allowed districts to change plans for up to 10% of their levy money; however, HB 790 does not allow for that flexibility, and instead requires districts to spend funds as they promised and to post spending reports online annually.

Schools would not be given new authority to spend early literacy funds on full-day kindergarten programs under the measure. Many municipalities have already taken this step.

It would also cut money for full-day kindergarten and literacy initiatives in general. That would have to be included in a separate bill for appropriations.