When Idaho schools Superintendent Tom Luna ran for office four years ago, we had concerns about his education credentials. His resume just didn’t stack up to some of his opponents. In the general election this year, he faces the same hurdle. His opponent, Stan Olson, a retired Boise superintendent, has a doctorate in educational leadership and has been a teacher and adjunct professor.
Yet Luna has some impressive achievements to point to in his four years on the job. His leadership has shown that somebody from outside the professional educator set can be effective. Luna says it’s because he looks at education from the customers’ viewpoint, meaning the students and the general public, rather than what’s convenient for the education bureaucracy.
He might be onto something, because Idaho schools have shown marked improvement since he’s taken office. This year, 62 percent of schools met their Adequate Yearly Progress goals under No Child Left Behind. Three years ago, only 26 percent did. Plus, Idaho students finished ninth in the nation on the math portion of the National Assessment of Education Progress.
The state remains a laggard when it comes to the low percentage of high school students who go on to achieve a post-secondary degree. That’s been a longstanding Idaho issue and one that the winner of this race will have to address. Olson highlights this issue and Idaho’s bottom-of-the barrel education funding when compared with other states. The latter issue can be pinned squarely on the state Legislature, which exacerbated matters by enacting a $128.5 million funding cut for education in the last session.
Luna gets credit for coming up with the idea of shifting Land Board endowment reserve funds over to education, which netted $22 million for schools. He also produced a commendable pay-for-performance plan that passed the House but was narrowly defeated in the Senate. His career-ladder approach would have given teachers more control over their pay and let districts decide what kinds of rewards were needed to meet their specific challenges.
It’s this type of thinking that shows Luna’s willingness to challenge the education culture to work on behalf of a broader constituency. Olson has gotten the enthusiastic support of education unions, but we fear this will make him beholden to the old ways, which didn’t serve Idaho well. He has produced impressive results in an urban district, but we’re not sure how that would translate to the rural, more isolated districts that make up much of the state.
Luna, on the other hand, wants to create more opportunities for high-achieving students in rural areas by setting up Internet courses for them. This, in turn, could result in more of them being ready for college.
Idaho has a choice between two strong candidates, but we think Luna’s approach is better suited to the educational and political realities of a conservative state. We recommend that voters give him another four years.