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‘A very interesting year ahead of us:’ Lent steps in as Senate Education chair

Kevin Richert - 01/03/2023

The new chairman of the Senate Education Committee brings a wide-ranging background to the job.

Before Dave Lent was elected to the Legislature, he served a dozen years on the Idaho Falls School Board. Lent has served not only on Senate Education, but on the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee — and he will still have a seat on the House-Senate panel that writes K-12 and higher education budget bills. A retired training director with an Idaho National Laboratory contractor, Lent takes a global view of work force development; in December, Lent spent a week touring nuclear facilities in France, learning more about how the nation prepares workers for reactor site jobs.

Lent, R-Idaho Falls, brings this resume to one of the most crucial committee assignments at the Statehouse. When the 2023 session opens next week, Senate Education will be a focal point in the debate over school funding and school choice.

Lent says he’s optimistic about the 2023 session. After years of disruption, imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Idaho has a unique opportunity to remake education and a projected $1.5 billion surplus to spend. “I think the timing is right.”

But the fact is, Senate Education is one of the big wild cards heading into the session. The election turnover that has torn up the Legislature’s old committee lineups is readily apparent on Senate Education. Only three of the committee’s nine members — Lent, Meridian Republican Sen. Lori Den Hartog and Boise Democratic Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking — sat on the committee a year ago. A core of freshly elected hardline conservatives could shift the committee’s balance of power.

Lent says he has been meeting with the new senators, trying to get a sense of their priorities, and trying to provide some insight into the process.

“At this point, I have no reservations about working with anybody on the committee,” Lent said. “Sometimes I think, new legislators, it takes them a while to figure out what’s practical and what’s reality, and what will actually get through the process and be signed by the governor, and what’s not.”

Which leads, inevitably, to school choice.

Advocates have made no secret of their desire to push a school choice bill through the Legislature — whatever form that actually takes. The new-look Senate Education could provide these advocates a launching pad. But committee chairs hold considerable power. They can fast-track bills they support and bottle up bills they oppose.

Lent is taking a noncommittal stance, saying it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to stake out a position before seeing a bill. He said he wants education bills to meet three yardsticks: Bills should improve student achievement, respond to the needs of parents and other education stakeholders, and be fiscally conservative.

Can a school choice bill meet all three criteria? “I think it’s possible,” Lent said.

Senate Education will have plenty of other issues on its agenda.

  • School facilities. Lent has co-chaired a House-Senate working group looking at whether the state should step up and put more money into replacing and repairing school buildings. With many school districts struggling to pass bond issues — including Idaho Falls, where a $250 million proposal failed in November — Lent believes schools need help. He supports moving $61 million of annual state endowment payments into facilities, and putting an additional $100 million of surplus money into a long-term facilities funding.

  • Classified employees. Almost every day, Lent says he hears from school administrators who are struggling to hire and retain classified employees — such as bus drivers, cafeteria staff and IT workers. Lent said the state needs to put more money into classified salaries.

  • Employee benefits. The 2022 Legislature put more than $180 million of one-time and permanent money into school employee benefits — in hopes of helping schools provide improved coverage while cutting employees’ out-of-pocket costs. But lawmakers didn’t fully fund the cost, and Lent believes the 2023 Legislature needs to finish the job.

  • In-demand careers. During a one-day session on Sept. 1, lawmakers signed onto Gov. Brad Little’s plan to put $330 million per year into K-12 and $80 million annually into a new program to prepare Idahoans for in-demand careers. The 2023 Legislature will get to decide where all this money goes — and there is no existing template for the new career preparation program. Lent would like to emphasize programs that push two-year programs into the high schools — quickly preparing young adults for jobs that can pay almost as well as jobs requiring a four-year degree.

These spending decisions also involve JFAC — the highly technical budget committee which meets each morning to hear agency budget presentations, and then ultimately writes spending bills for every facet of state government. While Lent said he hoped Senate leadership would promote him to chair Senate Education, he also wanted to keep a seat on JFAC.

This kind of double duty isn’t unprecedented. A few years ago, fellow Idaho Falls Republican Sen. Dean Mortimer chaired Senate Education while sitting on JFAC. And last year, Lent was one of five lawmakers sitting on Senate Education and JFAC.

That’s been a delicate issue, said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, who was named JFAC’s House co-chair last month. Horman said she has discussed the two assignments with Lent — and hopes Lent will respect the “bright line” between JFAC’s budget-writing role and Senate Education’s policymaking role. “That became less the case in the past two sessions,” Horman said.

At the same time, Horman also appreciates Lent’s work on the Idaho Falls school board. A former Bonneville school trustee herself, Horman gives Lent credit for helping promote Compass Academy, a magnet school run by the Idaho Falls district.

“I appreciate that he’s been open to innovation in the system in the past,” Horman said.

Lent is a strong ally of another new leader in education politics: newly elected state superintendent Debbie Critchfield, who took office Monday. Lent served on Critchfield’s transition team after the November election.

Critchfield said she tapped Lent because they share many of the same priorities: college and career readiness, career-technical education and training for school trustees. “(Lent’s) experience as a local school board member, as a professional at Idaho National Lab and as a state legislator provides him the ability to offer many different perspectives,” Critchfield said in a statement. “His contributions and collaborative approach to problem-solving will be a great benefit to K-12 education.”

Lent’s school trustee experience is a plus, said Quinn Perry deputy director of the Idaho School Boards Association, which lobbies on trustees’ behalf at the Statehouse.

Perry is also encouraged by what she saw from Lent last fall as he co-chaired the working group on school facilities. Lent made time on the schedule for presentations from the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a hardline think tank that questions spending on education; and Totally Optimistic Advocates Dedicated to Students, or TOADS, a group headed largely by retired school leaders that says the Legislature has chronically underfunded Idaho’s public school system.

“He’s certainly wanted to invite people to the table and hear all sorts of perspectives,” she said. “You couldn’t think of two more opposite groups.”

That wasn’t an accident. Lent said he learned from the Freedom Foundation presentation and the TOADS presentation. And he wants his committee members to show up ready to listen to all sides of the debate.

“I think good legislation and good policy doesn’t come from one sector,” he said. “Collectively, we’re much smarter than we are individually.”

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