As Idaho voters make clear their displeasure with cuts to public education spending, the men running to lead the state’s schools for the next four years are campaigning in relative obscurity.
A poll of 625 people likely to vote in the Nov. 2 election shows that 56 percent think per-pupil spending on K-12 public education is too low. The poll, conducted by The Spokesman-Review and six other daily Idaho newspapers, also shows that 23 percent of voters remain undecided about the race for superintendent of public instruction, possibly because some don’t know who’s running.
While GOP incumbent Tom Luna leads Democratic challenger Stan Olson 47 percent to 30 percent, the poll shows that 18 percent of respondents don’t recognize Luna’s name – giving him by far the lowest name recognition of any incumbent running in a statewide race this year. Olson, the just-retired Boise School District superintendent, is unknown to 53 percent of poll respondents.
“You have to consider Luna the favorite, but by no means is this race a done deal,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Washington, D.C.-based Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc., which conducted the Idaho Newspaper Poll.
Luna and Olson are running against a backdrop of voter unhappiness with the first-ever cuts made to public schools funding. Fifty-nine percent of those polled said they oppose the Legislature’s decision to cut school funding by $460 per pupil this year instead of raising taxes. The cuts also are an issue in the governor’s race, with Gov. Butch Otter’s Democratic challenger, Keith Allred, launching a new TV ad this week criticizing them.
Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association teachers union, said interest in the election seems to have sped up sooner than usual.
“I think what has happened with the public education cuts is parents – at least those who have enrolled their children in schools – have sort of gotten a jump on the political season,” Wood said.
Luna, who is seeking a second term, ran a weights-and-measures business for much of his career. He’s also served on the Nampa School District Board of Trustees and has led state commissions that have worked on achievement standards and the Idaho Standards Achievement Test.
Olson had a nearly 40-year career in education – including stints as a teacher, coach, adjunct professor and administrator – before retiring in June.
He said a lack of planning and educational priorities has worsened the impact of the budget cuts. “What’s troublesome is not only what happened this year, but what might happen next year,” Olson said.
With low name recognition, he said, he has a lot of work to do. “I hope in particular that the 23 percent of voters that are undecided at this stage will pay attention to the facts,” Olson said. “If they do that, their votes are coming in our column.”
Luna said his record shows that he’s pushed for new revenues for schools and put them into targeted areas like math and reading programs, textbooks and technology when the economy was strong.
“Not only did we get more money for schools, but we put it where it’s needed the most,” Luna said, stressing he’s made efforts to preserve funding. But Luna said money isn’t the only factor.
“People also want to make sure the money we have is being spent efficiently and effectively and we’re getting results,” he said. “I think more money alone is not indicative of a high-quality education system. If that was indicative, Washington, D.C., would have the best schools.”