BOISE — A bill to formalize a program to help low-performing schools is headed to the House floor.

Sponsored by Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, the School Turnaround Act would codify an already existing pilot program that targets the lowest 5 percent performing schools. Targeted schools would form a committee and bring in outside experts to develop and implement a plan to improve the school’s performance over three years.

“This bill provides some of that needed help,” Mortimer said. “This bill is a voluntary framework to use existing state board dollars to provide schools with experts to train and formulate a school turnaround plan and successfully implement it.”

Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, made a motion that passed the House Education Committee 8-6 to send it to the full House without a recommendation. This is a little unusual — when a committee votes to send a bill to the full House it almost always does so with a “do pass” recommendation.

Passing that motion means the committee didn’t vote on a competing one from Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, to send it to the House’s amending order. Kerby suggested several possible changes, including making the program mandatory for low-performing schools, which is part of a similar bill that passed in Utah in 2015. Kerby said that if the program is expanded in the future, it would likely be made mandatory, and the results from a smaller voluntary program might not be transferable.

“I think an amendment on voluntary versus mandatory is something that should be discussed,” he said.

Mortimer’s bill already passed the Senate. A similar bill passed the Senate last year and then cleared the House Education Committee, but got pulled back to committee late in the session and never got a vote in the full House. Changes from the last version, Mortimer said, include the inclusion of students as well as teachers, administrators and parents on the turnaround committee.

As well as the Utah bill, Mortimer’s also draws from model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential pro-business conservative group that comes up with proposed draft bills on a wide variety of topics. Mortimer said some of the schools involved in the Utah program have seen significant improvements, with an average of a 37 percent improvement in literacy scores and 29 percent in math compared to schools that weren’t part of the turnaround program.

The consultants in charge of implementing the plans, who could be either private companies or come from public institutions such as universities, would be paid 75 percent of their fee up front and get the other 25 percent if they get results. The bill also calls for the state Board of Education to set up rules to give extra funding as a reward for schools that are successful in improving.

“We need greater accountability in our schools,” Mortimer said. “We need much more of much more help, and we need a lot of things to make education move. This is a step. In my opinion, it’s a vital step.”

The bill codifies a pilot program the state Board of Education started in 2017, at a cost of $750,000 a year, using the University of Idaho as a consultant. The bill also would create an administrative training program focused on identifying principals and other administrators who have successfully improved their schools and sharing their methods. Mortimer said the $1 million a year for this would come from existing administrator training funds.

“This legislation does not require new money,” he said.

Hollie Petterson with Ed Direction, a Utah firm that had some of the school improvement contracts there, testified in favor of the bill, as did Tracie Bent with the Idaho Board of Education. The board voted in February to back the bill. Idaho Freedom Foundation Vice President Fred Birnbaum urged the committee not to pass it, expressing concerns about costs going up and about inadequate accountability in the bill.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.

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