Rep. Steve Berch Newsletter - Rules Edition

I've been waiting for my two main committees, Education and Business, to complete their rules review process before sending my first real newsletter of the 2020 legislative session. They are now done, so here it is!

There's a lot to review since the legislature went into session, so this first newsletter will be rather long. I hope you find it informative and helpful. 

Please check the bottom of this newsletter for upcoming District 15 events and the various ways you can contact me.  I look forward to hearing from you!

 

 

Politicizing Education

The House Education Committee voted last week to reject and remove every word of every education standard in math, English and science for all K-12 grades.  Every. Single. Word. Without a replacement. If this decision stands, the over 15,000 teachers charged with educating over 300,000 students will have no uniform standards to guide what is taught in classrooms throughout Idaho.
 
But wait, there’s more.
 
The House Education Committee also voted last week to remove all requirements for teacher certification throughout Idaho – every single requirement – without a replacement.  If this decision stands, your children could be taught by people with no professional educator training.
 
I stood in strong opposition to these actions. It is beyond irresponsible to remove education standards and teaching certification requirements without replacing them with something better. The counter-argument was, “Oh, nothing will change – the State Department of Education (SDE) can simply reinstate the standards and certification criteria we’ve rejected.” I then asked during debate why take this action if nothing will change.  The reply was, “We want to send a message to the SDE.”
 
But “sending a message” wasn’t the actual decision the committee was voting on. There was no motion to craft a carefully thought-out message to the SDE. There was no proposal as to how the standards and certification criteria should be changed for the better. There wasn’t even a bill to create a review committee. Our choice was this:

  1. Accept the current standards and certification criteria as they were last year
  2. Accept them with some exceptions
  3. Reject all of them 

The committee chose Door #3. Why would presumably intelligent people choose to do something so reckless?
 
Using the words “Common Core” to politicize public education in Idaho
The truth is that the House Education Committee vote was not about standards.  It wasn’t even about sending a message to the SDE. It appeared to be more about wanting to tell constituents that they voted to “get rid of Common Core” before the upcoming election.
 
The words “Common Core” have become a political catch-phrase to condemn anything one doesn’t like about public education in Idaho.  Don’t like the test scores? Blame “Common Core.” Can’t help your child with their math homework? Blame “Common Core.” Don’t like a book on a suggested reading list? Blame “Common Core.”   
 
I understand, respect and empathize with those who feel this way. One of the concerns I heard from voters at the door, especially a few years ago, was that they couldn’t help their child with their math homework.  The Idaho Education Standards (which were derived from the Common Core initiative) were often blamed.
 
And there certainly were problems, including a poorly executed statewide rollout that did not adequately prepare teachers or inform parents of the changes being made. They were also introduced near the height of the recession while education funding was being cut.
 
But the problem was not the actual written standards themselves. Understanding the root cause of the problem requires reviewing a bit of history. During public testimony, former Superintendent Tom Luna reminded us that the legislature was told the new standards would raise classroom expectations one or two grade levels for each grade AND that test scores would initially go down before they would go up.
 
One critic argued that since test scores have not risen much since the standards were adopted, we should get rid of the standards. That’s like saying that if you’re late for an appointment, you should get rid of your car.  There can be a lot of reasons for being late for an appointment. Similarly, there can be a lot of reasons for disappointing test scores, such as: higher expectations, inadequate preparation and teaching aids, exodus of experienced teachers, insufficient funding, and so on.
 
Simply blaming “Common Core” does nothing to identify the actual origin of the problem. There are three main components to the overall teaching experience: education standards, curriculum (which is both content and teaching methodologies), and assessment.

  • If you don’t like the books on a reading list, that is a curriculum/content issue, not standards
  • If your child doesn’t understand how to do math, that is a curriculum/methodology issue, not standards
  • If you don’t like the type or amount of tests being administered, that is an assessment issue, not standards.

Not one person who testified before the committee, including the most ardent critics, identified a single page, paragraph, sentence or word of the math and English standards they objected to. And only two sentences among all the science standards were mentioned during testimony. However, every teacher that testified – the people actually responsible for teaching to the standards – implored the committee to approve the current standards as is.
 
Instead of trying to figure out the real source of the problem, the House Education Committee voted to simply remove all standards, such as: teaching multiplication, knowing the alphabet, understanding the solar system, along with everything else – and blamed “Common Core” repeatedly during the debate.
 
The politicizing of education furthers my resolve to be a voice for reason, critical thinking and common sense in the legislature.
 
Postscript
The day after the vote, we learned that Idaho could lose over $250 million in federal funding for public education if the state did not have education standards in place. Oops.
 
Articles in the press

 

Rotunda Roundup

The first two weeks of each legislative session is usually spent reviewing administrative rules written by the departments and agencies that report to the governor.  The legislature writes the laws, but the executive branch writes the rules necessary to implement and enforce the intent of the legislature. These rules expire at the end of each fiscal year (June 30). The legislature then gets to approve or reject new rules or changes to rules made by the various departments (called temporary rules). This is done in what is informally called the “going home” bill at the end of each session. It renews the rules for the coming fiscal year.
 
However, last year the legislature never approved the “going home” bill. Every single administrative rule – all 8,000 pages of them – expired on June 30, 2019. The governor had to re-issue all of them as new temporary rules (minus obsolete and redundant rules that were eliminated by his Red Tape Reduction Act), causing the legislature to review every single rule.  As a result, we’ve spent the first five weeks this session reviewing rules (including the education standards mentioned earlier).
 
This has delayed the introduction of new legislation. Here are some of the more noteworthy activities and bills that have come up for a vote. As you will see below, many of these early bills gave me cause for concern. 
 
House Business Committee.  As with the Education Committee, the Business Committee spent the first five weeks of the session reviewing all the rules that were re-instated or changed after all rules expired last June. Each department reviewed the hundreds of pages of rules that were eliminated. I was concerned that this might have eliminated protective regulations or reduce the requirements for professional certification. The good news (with one exception) is that the committee was assured that each department is doing everything it was doing before the rules expired last June, and that certification and licensing requirements had not changed. The pages of eliminated rules were either obsolete, redundant or rules that never went into effect. In short, the Red Tape Reduction Act could be more accurately called the Unused Tape Reduction Act.
 
The exception mentioned above was eliminating the current rule that requires one journeyman electrician to supervise every two apprentice electricians working on a residential jobsite. This rule is critical to ensure the safety of both workers and the future occupants of the structures they are wiring. The committee’s action means an electrical contractor could have one journeyman on site supervising an unlimited number of apprentices. Worse, that same under-supervised apprentices can suddenly be assigned to a commercial or industrial project where the safety concerns are much greater than residential work.
 
I voted against eliminating this journeyman/apprentice ratio rule. I am hopeful that the Senate will accept this rule, which will nullify the action taken by the House Business Committee.
 
Daycare safety (HB312 – failed in the House). I voted for this bill. It would have updated child care licensing to comply with federal regulations and the Idaho Child Care Program standards. It included safety measures such as: annual unannounced health inspections, requiring employees to pass background checks, and ensure children are safely secured during vehicular transport. Failing to comply with the federal requirements may cost the state millions of dollars in federal funding.

Optometric physician licensing act (HB317 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill enables optometrists to perform certain laser surgical procedures that only ophthalmologists are currently allowed to do. This was a difficult decision for me. My concern was not with optometrists performing the actual procedure, but rather if they had the necessary medical training to properly diagnose a patient’s condition prior to treatment or handle unexpected complications that might arise during the procedure. I voted against the bill out of caution and uncertainty.   

Medicaid reimbursements (HB351 – passed the House, in the Senate).  This bill cuts Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals and nursing facilities, which could have a negative impact on Medicaid patients. I voted against this bill.

Shifting sales tax revenue to transportation (HB325 – passed the House, in the Senate). I strongly opposed this bill. This is yet another bill that takes money away from education and other vital services. It is part of an on-going fiscal shell game to avoid raising more revenue than growth can generate to meet the state’s increasing transportation needs for both maintenance and new construction.    

Limiting the number of school bond elections (HB347 – passed the House, in the Senate). There are currently four times a year that any taxing district (including school districts) can put a bond or levy on the ballot (March, May, August and November).  This bill would force a school district to wait 11 months before putting another bond or levy on the ballot. It is a bad bill for multiple reasons. It violates the principle that government is best when it’s closest to the people, implying the state must protect voters from themselves. It prevents a school board from floating a smaller, acceptable bond or levy after a larger one recently failed.  And it turns out that this bill would have only affected a handful of school bonds or levies had it already been in effect. I voted against this ill-conceived bill.  

In the hopper
              
Interim Committee to study sales tax exemptions (HCR26 – assigned to the House Ways and Means committee).  I wrote this House Concurrent Resolution to create an interim committee composed of legislators, industry representatives and tax and budget experts to study the nearly $2.5 billion in sales tax exemptions the legislature excludes from revenue collection each year. This decades-old fiscal policy is largely responsible for driving up other taxes and fees to generate needed revenues at the state and local levels (e.g. property, gas and grocery taxes). I recently wrote an op-ed that discusses this situation in greater detail (click here for more). I am working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to move this resolution forward.    

Constitutional Amendment fixing the number of legislative districts at 35 (HJR4 – assigned to the House State Affairs committee). Every ten years, a bi-partisan redistricting commission of three Republican and three Democratic designates redraws legislative boundaries following the census (which takes place this year). This commission was enacted by Idaho voters via a constitutional amendment in the 1990’s. It fixed the partisan gerrymandering of the early 1980’s when the legislature controlled the process. That earlier amendment gives the redistricting commission the power to draw between 30 and 35 legislative districts (there are currently 35).  The Speaker of the House introduced an amendment to fix the number at only 35 districts (click here for more). The Speaker has previously said this is necessary to protect the voice of rural districts as portions of Idaho become more urbanized.

I don’t think this amendment is necessary, but I can support it – if it’s the only proposed amendment to this part of the state constitution. The problem is that the Speaker also supported a move last year to add a seventh member to the redistricting commission to be selected by Republican Party leadership. This would give Republican designates a 4-3 majority on the commission, effectively allowing only one party to draw all the boundaries (since it takes only a simple majority of the commission to approve new boundaries). That leads to gerrymandering, where one political party gets to pick its voters.

Thusfar, the Speaker has refused to guarantee that no other amendments to this part of the constitution or changes to his resolution will be made and voted upon.

Property tax bills.  There are a few tax-related bills that have been introduced and probably several more that will bubble up to the surface later in the session.  I will address the bills related to tax policy in a subsequent newsletter.
 

 

Upcoming Town Hall meetings

  • February 19 (Wednesday), 7:00 pm, Summerwind STEM Academy 
  • March 17 (Tuesday), 7:00 pm, Cecil D. Andrus Elementary
  • April 29 (Wednesday), 7:00 pm, Centennial High School
 

On The Air

2020

  • January 10 - KBOI interview (with Rep. Megan Blanksma): Click here.

2019

  • January 31 - Idaho Matters radio interview (with Rep. Jake Ellis).  Click here.
  • March 14 - BYU-Idaho radio interview on key legislative topics. Click here.
  • March 29 - KBOI interview (with Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking): Click here.
  • August 1 - BSU radio story on redistricting. Click here.
  • August 15 - Capital Update radio interview on protecting the ballot initiative process. Click here.
  • November 5 – Podcast interview about my experiences while running for office. Click here.
 

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ABOUT STEVE BERCH

Steve represents District 15, House Seat 15A. He is a member of the Education, Business and Local Government Committees. How to contact Steve:

  • Constituent Help Desk:  208-921-3571 
  • Phone (cell): 208-890-9339
  • Phone (Capitol): 208-332-1039
  • Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

Best websites for following the legislature

 

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Upcoming events

Watch for future announcements here!