Like pretty much everything else that has transpired since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Idaho last winter, the 2021 Idaho legislative session figures to be full of uncertainty. The 2020 session ended abruptly with some legislation still being deliberated. Governor Little’s budget holdback in May and the subsequent report of a $600 million budget surplus will also be major drivers of the upcoming session.
IEA members will need to utilize their powerful platform and voice to support pro-public education policy and oppose the extremist legislation that will surely surface again this year. Public school supporters will once again fight off efforts from those who seek to undermine Idaho’s public education system and compromise the futures of our students and professional educators.
Some of the key issues and potential legislation to keep an eye on this session are highlighted here.
Budget Surplus. Estimates are that Idaho will end up with a budget surplus of roughly $600 million. We staunchly advocate for using this windfall as a down payment on fully investing in Idaho’s public education system. Some legislators will push for even more tax cuts or for the surplus to be used in other areas. The voices of educators and parents will be critical in convincing legislators of the urgent need to make public school funding the top priority.
Career Ladder and Advanced Professional Educator designation. One of the biggest blows in the budget holdback was the freezing of the Career Ladder and a delay in implementing the Advanced Professional Educator Pay law that was approved during the 2020 legislative session. It will be incumbent upon the legislature to approve a budget that not only unfreezes the Career Ladder moving forward but also makes use of the surplus to make educators whole for the compensation they missed because of the holdback. Similarly, they will need to approve a budget that fully funds the Advanced Professional Educator rung, which is critical to addressing Idaho’s teacher retention issues.
Vouchers. Almost certain to return this year will be legislation designed to siphon funding away from public schools and divert it to private and religious schools. Whether they are called vouchers or the less diabolical sounding “Education Savings Accounts”, these bills would undermine the ability of our public schools to help students. Unlike public schools, private schools can pick and choose the students they want and have far less transparency and accountability.
Bond and Levy elections. Also likely to return will be a bill to reduce the number of windows for school bond and levy elections from four to two. With state funding at insufficient levels, many school districts rely on bonds and levies for facility improvements and basic operations. Limiting the district’s ability to put these measures on the ballot for local voters could have devastating consequences, especially for less affluent districts.
Impact Fees. We will be joining the Idaho School Boards Association in supporting legislation that would assess impact fees to developers who build new subdivisions. Right now, the burden for funding the schools and infrastructure related to new development is borne by existing school patrons and taxpayers. This is both a fairness and funding issue that needs to be addressed.
Mental Health and the Achievement Gap
Last year the legislature approved resources aimed at addressing the mental and emotional health issues Idaho students are dealing with, thanks in no small part to IEA participation on the task force that brought the topic to the forefront. This year Governor Little plans to work with the legislature on building a comprehensive plan for addressing mental and behavioral health—from the front lines of Idaho public schools to the back end of the corrections system. The governor has also expressed great concern about how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated both mental health issues and the achievement gap among Idaho students.
Education Committees and Legislative Leadership
The Senate Education Committee has a new look following the retirement of longtime Chair Dean Mortimer. Sen. Steve Thayn, R-Emmett, who has been serving as Vice-Chair, has been elevated to Chair. Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, has been named Vice-Chair. Also serving on the Senate Education Committee for this session will be Senators Den Hartog, Woodward, Lent, Johnson, Cook, Ward-Engelking, and Nelson.
On the House side, Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, returns as Chair of the House Education Committee. Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, will again serve as Vice-Chair. IEA members Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, and Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, return to their assignments on the House Education Committee.
Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, was re-elected Speaker of the House, while Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise was elected president pro tem of the Senate. Both fended off challenges from extreme right-wing opponents. Winder replaces Brent Hill, who did not run for re-election.