Statehouse roundup, 1.29.24: Republican proposes disclaimer that school vaccines are ‘not mandatory’

As Idaho’s childhood immunization rates decline, a new bill would require school districts to take an extra step informing parents that “mandatory” vaccines are “not mandatory.” 

Before starting kindergarten, Idaho school children must get vaccines for measles, chickenpox, polio and other diseases. But state law has broad exemptions to the mandate — parents can refuse vaccination for any reason. 

The law says a parent can exempt their child from a vaccine with a doctor’s note explaining health risks. Vaccinations also can be refused “on religious or other grounds.” School districts are required to disclose these exemptions when communicating with parents about immunization.

The new bill would take it a step further and require that school districts “describe that immunizations are not mandatory.” 

“I’m very pro-vaccine,” said Rep. Dori Healey, R-Boise, who’s sponsoring the bill. But Healey said many parents don’t know immunization requirements aren’t mandatory when school districts send out regular vaccination reminders.

Rep. Dori Healey, R-Boise

The House Health and Welfare Committee voted Monday to introduce the bill, which means it could have a public hearing in the coming days or weeks. 

The bill comes as Idaho’s childhood immunization rates have steadily declined in recent years — and the state last year experienced a rare outbreak of measles, a disease once considered eradicated from the U.S. thanks to widespread vaccination. 

Last school year, more than 10,000 school-age children weren’t fully vaccinated, Idaho Education News previously reported. The kindergarten immunization rate was nearly 78%, down about 8% from pre-pandemic levels, and more than 12% of kindergarteners were in school with an immunization exemption. 

New smartphone filter bill introduced

Idaho senators Monday introduced a new version of a bill to require smartphone manufacturers to create pornography filters on smartphones and tablets used by children. 

The bill has one major change since it was first introduced two weeks ago: There’s no longer a civil cause of action. That provision would have made a company liable for civil lawsuits if they failed to enable a filter blocking children from accessing “obscene material” on one of their devices. 

“It was causing noise and I just went back and focused on … the real problem that I’m trying to fix here,” bill sponsor Sen. Kevin Cook said Monday. “The real problem is giving parents the ability to keep their children from pornography.” 

The Idaho attorney general’s office still could seek penalties for failing to comply with the proposed law. The legislation calls for up to $50,000 in fines. 

Cook, R-Idaho Falls, said the requirements only would apply to device manufacturers and not retailers or internet providers. Manufacturers would have to enable a filter that blocks “obscene material” — defined in state law as a sexual act that “appeals to the prurient interest” — on a smartphone or tablet used by a minor. Parents or guardians could deactivate the filter.  

It’s the second consecutive legislative session that Cook has pushed for a pornography filter on smartphones. A similar bill last year narrowly failed to pass the Senate amid concerns that it was overreaching into private industry affairs. 

That resistance appears to be ongoing. On Monday, Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder bemoaned opposition to the bill and compared it to legislation seeking to restrict library material, which is widely supported by Statehouse Republicans. 

“There’s more access to pornography through the cell phone than there is through a library, so I don’t understand why we have opposing sides on this,” said Winder, R-Boise.

‘When ISU wins, the state of Idaho wins:’ new president meets lawmakers

On his first day on the job, Idaho State University President Robert Wagner was in the Statehouse.

New Idaho State University President Robert Wagner speaks to the House Education Committee. (Brandon Schertler/Idaho EdNews)

“When ISU wins, the state of Idaho wins,” Wagner said during brief introductory remarks before the House Education Committee Monday morning.

Wagner pledged to focus on “affordability and relevance” and work to improve student access.

Wagner also drew from his own background as a nontraditional student. When he completed his bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young University, Wagner and his wife had already had their first child. When he received his master’s degree at the University of Utah, he was a father of four. When he completed his doctorate from the State University of New York at Albany, he was a father of five, studying more than 2,000 miles from home.

Wagner was named Idaho State’s 14th president in December. Previously, Wagner had worked 16 years at nearby Utah State University, most recently as executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Wagner was scheduled to speak to the Senate Education Committee Monday afternoon. Wagner is also scheduled to return to the Statehouse in February for more formal comments.

Trustee vacancy bill heads to the Senate floor

With little discussion, the Senate Education Committee approved a bill designed to keep school boards running in the event of vacancies.

Senate Bill 1239 would redefine quorum as the number of school trustees in office, not the number of school board seats.

The change would only affect a five-member board that is down two members. Currently, all three remaining trustees must attend a meeting in order for the board to conduct business. Under SB 1239, such a board could hold a meeting with only two trustees in attendance.

Sponsoring Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, called the bill a “scalpel” approach to address a problem that occurred in his legislative district. The West Bonner School District struggled to cobble together a working quorum after two trustees were recalled in August.

The Idaho School Boards Association is neutral on the bill, executive director Misty Swanson said Monday.

Senate Education voted unanimously to send SB 1239 to the floor, with a recommendation that it pass. A Senate vote could come later this week.

Herndon’s bill is one of two proposals to come out of the West Bonner brouhaha. Rep. Mark Sauter, R-Sandpoint, has introduced a bill that would block recalled trustees from participating in board meetings.


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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