By Terri Jo Neff
When the State House voted Friday to pass HB2898, the K-12 Education budget bill, it marked the end of a grueling process that resulted in passage of a $12.8 billion budget package for Fiscal Year 2022.
A key provision of HB2898 is the establishment of new academic standards for K-12 students in the area of civics. There was also funding for a number of special programs for students and a variety of new rules for school board and school districts.
But much of the debate about the bill centered on whether more money should have been allocated.
Rep. Aaron Lieberman (D-LD28) acknowledged HB2898 includes “a lot of money,” but he argued it was not enough. Lieberman noted 2,000 classrooms across the state do not have assigned, permanent teachers, something he said could be remedied by spending one-fourth of the state’s $2 billion surplus.
“It’s clear now more than ever we need every dollar,” Lieberman said in voting against the bill.
However, Rep. Bret Roberts (R-LD11) questioned why more focus is not on the decisions of school boards who spend the billions of dollars provided each year through federal funding and from the legislature.
“Why are we not asking the school boards why they’re not giving the money that the legislature sends to the school boards to the teachers?” he asked on the floor. “Why are we not holding the school boards responsible for the money that we send them to give to the teachers? When are the teachers going to hold the school boards responsible?”
Rep. Walt Blackman (R-LD6) expressed similar frustration, noting that many of the chamber’s 24 Democrats who were present Friday complained the funding in HB2898 was too low. So they simply voted against the bill.
Blackman acknowledged K-12 funding in the bill “may not be enough” but said those representatives who vote green -yes- are demonstrating they “support education by action.” Which is why he was disturbed to see so many red -no- votes.
Democrats may give myriad reasons for what is wrong in HB2898 or what could be done differently, he said, “but if we are really dedicated to teaching our children K-12, and that is a non-partisan issue, then why do we have red votes?”
“This can’t be an issue where we are upset and we take our marbles and we go home because we don’t have enough marbles to play,” Blackman said, adding that all of the votes should be green because “nothing is perfect.”
The House K-12 Education bill will now be transmitted to the Senate, which last week passed its own education bill. There is now one significant difference between the bills which will need to be reconciled.
That difference involves a major expansion of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) which is currently available to about 250,000 students. The Senate’s budget bill added two eligibility criteria which would make ESAs an option to 700,000 students, including children from Title 1 schools where at least 40 percent of the families are considered low-income.
However, three Republicans in the House voted against an amendment which would have included the ESA expansion in HB2898. The amendment died without those votes and the three Republicans also voted against a later attempt to insert the failed amendment into the main bill just prior to final voting.
Sen. Paul Boyer (R-LD20) is a teacher and a major supporter of ESA legislation. He took to Twitter after the House vote to express his disappointment with the ESA decision.
“Meanwhile, minority students are 6 to 12 months behind their white counterparts. This defeat of ESAs for Title I students makes sure those same students never leave the school that’s failing them,” Boyer tweeted.