Statehouse roundup, 1.30.24: Bill to arm school teachers on hold, for now

The House has put off a debate on a bill that would give school teachers the right to carry guns on campus.

Rep. Ted Hill’s bill was scheduled for a vote Tuesday, but members voted to keep it on the calendar, for now. Hill told Idaho Education News that he’s hoping to bolster support for the bill and address concerns from the Senate, to avoid amendments once it crosses the rotunda. 

“We are trying to get the buy-in and we’ve got to give it some time,” said Hill, R-Eagle. “But we haven’t changed the bill, or anything, yet.”

The House State Affairs Committee last week voted along party lines to give House Bill 415 the go-ahead. That was after a tense public hearing in which associations representing school boards and administrators as well as the statewide teachers’ union expressed fervent opposition. 

The bill would give school employees the right to carry guns on public school campuses and grant them legal immunity if they engage in a gunfight. An employee would need an enhanced concealed carry permit, but wouldn’t need permission from school administrators or trustees, to carry on campus.  

The legislation is designed to give teachers a fighting chance in a school shooting in the minutes before law enforcement arrives, Hill argues. “The police never stop these things, almost never,” he told EdNews. “We’re trying to close this gap.” 

But law enforcement groups have said they’re concerned that the eight-hour training required for an enhanced concealed carry permit is inadequate and that the bill is taking the wrong approach to addressing school shootings. 

The Idaho Association of School Resource Officers announced Monday that it’s opposed to the current proposal, and lawmakers should instead focus on preventing school shootings. Strategies should include mandating behavioral threat assessments, establishing research-based emergency protocols and investing in school resource officers, Morgan Ballis, president of the association, wrote in a column.

“Rep. Hill, and those who support this legislation, have demonstrated their resolve to protect our students and educators,” Ballis wrote. “However, these efforts are focused in the wrong areas.”

Blaine repeal on hold, at least for the time being

A proposal to overturn the controversial “Blaine Amendment” is also on hold, at least for the time being.

The House State Affairs Committee took no action on House Joint Resolution 1, an attempt to strike Idaho’s constitutional ban on using public dollars to support religious enterprises, including schools.

The reasons to hold the amendment were not immediately clear. Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, a supporter of the repeal, asked to delay a vote so he could get answers to some technical questions. Palmer did not elaborate. His motion to delay the vote passed unanimously.

The vote came after a debate that fell along familiar ideological lines.

Rep. Elaine Price, R-Coeur d’Alene, repeatedly said that her proposal was simply designed to give Idahoans a say on the Blaine Amendment. (Constitutional amendments must pass both houses by two-thirds supermajorities, and majority support from voters.) But she also said the amendments — in place in about three dozen states, including Idaho — reflect a nationwide political campaign engineered by former U.S. congressman James Blaine, who also sought similar language in the U.S. Constitution.

“Blaine had a hatred for Catholic Irish immigrants and expressed his bigotry with this  amendment,” Price said.

Supporting the repeal, Coeur d’Alene attorney Katherine Hartley argued against a strict separation between church and state. This separation, embodied in the Blaine amendment, disfavors religion. “This is not neutral. This is hostile toward religion of all kinds.”

Opponents pushed back against the argument that the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively overturned the Blaine Amendment. A recent Supreme Court ruling said a state cannot discriminate against funding religious schools — but only if a state decides to make public dollars available to private schools.

The amendment guarantees that public dollars stay in public schools, said Nancy Gregory, a Boise school trustee and Idaho School Boards Association past president. Repealing the amendment would provide an “easy path” to pass a tax voucher or education savings account plan, she said.

And while Palmer didn’t spell out his questions, Rep. John Gannon rattled off several concerns.

Gannon, D-Boise, wanted a better sense of the cost of repeal, if it paves the way for a private school funding law. He also asked how the state would define religions that are eligible for state support — and a list of religious enterprises that could receive state funding, beyond parochial schools.

Tuition tax credit bill surfaces

A much-anticipated bill to subsidize private school tuition made its first appearance Tuesday. 

The House Revenue and Taxation Committee introduced the bill to create a $50 million program for private school tax credits and low-income grants. 

Co-sponsors Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, previewed the proposal in a news conference earlier this month. Tuesday’s print hearing was the first hurdle for the bill, setting the stage for a public hearing likely to draw fireworks. 

The bill would allow private school families of any income to claim $5,000 tax credits for academic expenses. That could include tuition, fees, transportation, tutoring, test-taking and exam preparation, among other things. Families with a learning-disabled student could claim an additional $2,500. 

Another $10 million would be set aside for a “kickstart” program benefitting low-income students. Rather than claiming private school expenses on their taxes, families who qualify for the federal earned income tax credit could collect up to $5,000 in grants for one year. After a year, those families would be rolled into the tax credit program. 

Altogether, the tax credits and grants — distributed on a first-come, first-served basis — would be capped at $50 million annually. That could go up in future years if there’s high demand. 

Tuesday’s meeting was a taste of the debate to come. Den Hartog tried to head off the primary criticism of proposals to subsidize private education — that they would drain public school funds. 

“This does not take funds from the public schools budget,” said Den Hartog, who said the K-12 budget would be dealt with separately.

After Rep. Kenny Wroten, R-Nampa, asked whether the bill would create a “new source of revenue,” Den Hartog acknowledged that the tax credits could decrease state revenue. 

After the hearing, House and Senate Democrats said the state’s budget is “fungible” and “any amount of funds” allocated to the proposed program would deplete money available for public schools. 

Idaho has roughly 15,000 private school students. The Mountain States Policy Center, a think tank that has supported similar proposals in the past, estimates the $50 million spending cap would limit the program to roughly 8,000 students. 

The committee voted 13-3 to introduce the bill. Wroten opposed it, along with Rep. Rick Cheatum, R-Pocatello, and House Assistant Minority Leader Lauren Necochea, D-Boise.

Charter school overhaul clears House

Atop a wave of mostly silent consent, a bill to overhaul Idaho’s charter school regulations sailed through the House Tuesday.

While three Democrats opposed the bill, there was no debate against, and very little argument for, the “Accelerating Public Charter Schools Act.” The bill is a sweeping revision of regulations governing charter school applications, operations and reauthorizations, designed to reward high-performing charters with less “red tape” and provide more support to struggling charters. 

“We’ve learned a lot in the last 26 years of charter schools,” said Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, who’s sponsoring the bill co-authored by the governor’s office. “Instead of just fixing a little piece here and there, we decided to do a total rewrite.” 

To read more about what the overhaul would entail, click here.

The bill now heads to the Senate.

New bill targets access to ‘harmful’ online materials

A House committee introduced another bill designed to restrict access to “harmful” online materials.

Dubbed the “Online Child Safety Act,” the new bill would require internet content providers to verify the age of users who view materials deemed harmful to minors. If providers don’t take “reasonable steps” to verify a user’s age, parents would be allowed to seek civil damages.

“We are just trying to provide content creators with a way to self-regulate,” said Rep. Elaine Price, R-Coeur d’Alene, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

The House State Affairs Committee voted to introduce the bill Tuesday, a unanimous vote that could pave the way to a full hearing at a later date.

While the House bill targets content providers, a Senate bill takes a decidedly different approach to controlling access to harmful materials. Sen. Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls, has proposed a bill to require manufacturers to install filters on devices children use. The Senate State Affairs Committee introduced the latest version of Cook’s bill Monday.

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business. Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism.

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