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Senate passes bill to establish grant program for Idaho students to combat learning loss

Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, listens to Senate floor action at the Idaho Capitol on Jan. 17, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, listens to Senate floor action at the Idaho Capitol on Jan. 17, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

More than 84,000 students received grants under similar program in 2020

The Idaho Senate passed two bills on Thursday — one providing funding to parents to help meet the educational needs of a child and to address learning loss, and one exempting guns from the state’s laws around disaster declarations.

Senate Bill 1255 establishes the Empowering Parents Grant Program, which would be funded by $50 million of American Rescue Plan Act State Fiscal Recovery Funds for direct grants to families. It passed the Senate with only one “no” vote from Sen. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello.

Up to $1.185 million in state general fund dollars would be used to pay for costs to administer the program, including staff, a digital platform and a mandatory program evaluation in fiscal year 2023.

The legislation would grant $1,000 per student, with a maximum allotment of $3,000 per family. It is geared toward lower-income students, said Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, but if funds are available after the neediest families have applied and received funds, grants could be given to families with higher incomes. Families would have two years to spend the funds.

The grants program was initially proposed by Gov. Brad Little in his State of the State address. Little said the grants would cover items such as computers, tutoring services, internet connectivity and other needs that would help set students up for success.

Den Hartog said the idea is similar to the Strong Families, Strong Students program started through an executive order by Little in 2020. Den Hartog said more than 81,000 students received funding through that program before funds ran out, and 94% of them were in Idaho’s public schools.

“Part of this is to address learning loss that may have occurred during the pandemic, but it’s also a recognition of the ongoing needs that students in our state have and that there is a potential different avenue to provide resources to those students,” she said during floor debate.

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said he thinks taxpayer dollars should generally be used to support public schools and not to transfer payments to individuals, but he voted for the bill because he thought it was needed to help families with technology.

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said he was becoming increasingly bothered by the notion that the only thing the Legislature does is fund public education.

“As important as it is, that path that tends to discourage … some parents from engaging in their God-given responsibilities, and it’s having negative consequences to the health of the state. We need to maintain and recognize where the responsibility lies for education, and that’s the parents,” Thayn said. “Our responsibility is to provide a system, but until we get those two responsibilities clear, in mind, we are not going to make the progress that we need.”

The bill now heads to the House of Representatives for its consideration. It also includes an emergency clause, meaning the legislation will go into effect immediately after it is signed into law.

Senate passes protections for firearms during declared disaster emergencies

The Senate also passedSenate Bill 1262 on a 30-5 vote, with five Democrats voting against it. The bill adds protections for firearms, ammunition and related components during a declared disaster emergency and establishes firearm-related commerce and business as essential services. It also adds that procedures for concealed weapon licenses in Idaho law cannot be bypassed and firearms used in otherwise lawful conduct cannot be seized under a disaster emergency declaration.

The section of Idaho Code that addresses disaster emergencies allows government officials to commandeer or use real or personal property if needed for an emergency, such as construction equipment.

Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, said she supported the idea because while there may be a need for government intervention in the case of wildfires and floods, the bill helps clarify the government’s role.

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, also called the bill a necessary clarification in law.

“As a legislative body, we set boundaries to make sure that the rights of our citizens are protected, that there’s not confusion that could result in invasions of the routes of our citizens,” Rice said. “That’s what this clarification does. I very much appreciate (Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa) bringing this, it’s important that … our citizens not have to worry about whether this time the courts will get it right or not, because they don’t always. They’re human just like all the rest of us.”

The bill now heads to the House of Representatives for its consideration. It also includes an emergency clause that would make the law effective on July 1 if it is ultimately signed into law.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.