April 8, 2011 in Idaho

Otter signs ed reform bill, referendum filed to overturn it

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, center, accepts petitions Friday from Mike Lanza, center right, to launch a referendum drive to overturn SB 1184, the third school-reform bill; paperwork already has been approved to attempt a challenge to the two earlier school reform bills in the same manner.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed the third major school reform bill into law on Friday, and a parents’ group immediately filed the paperwork to launch a referendum drive to overturn it.

Otter said, “The system we had wasn’t working, wasn’t producing the kind of students that we needed.”

The third reform bill, SB 1184, shifts funds from teacher salaries to technology boosts and a merit-pay program, and brings a new focus on online learning; the two earlier bills, already signed into law and targeted in referendum drives, remove most collective bargaining rights from teachers and set up a teacher merit-pay bonus plan.

“There are those that want us to fail - we are not going to fail,” Otter declared. “We’re going to push this education package, this reform, until it meets the needs of our future workforce, until it meets the needs of students today.”

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna, who joined Otter at the signing along with a big group of legislative sponsors and supporters of the bill, said, “This is a great monumental day for students in Idaho, for the children in Idaho.” He said the bills will do “things that we know we should have done long ago.”

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s lead sponsor, said when he first heard from Otter in November that “we need to talk about education reform … I had no idea of the depth of reform that we were talking about. … It’s landmark legislation.”

Though Luna removed requirements he’d first proposed in the bill for students to take first eight, then six, then four online classes in order to graduate from high school in Idaho, the final version of the bill replaced that with a requirement for the state Board of Education to determine how many online classes should be required, starting with ninth graders in the fall of 2012.

Luna said Friday that four classes is “a reasonable number,” but Otter said, “That’s the minimum. … That’s going to be the minimum.” Otter said he expects students will be taking “12 or 15” online classes.

An hour later, Mike Lanza, a Boise father of two, gathered with Boise mom Maria Greeley and a crowd of supporters to deliver the referendum paperwork to Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa.

“We’ll expedite this,” Ysursa said. “The clock is ticking.”

The referendum supporters now have just under 60 days to gather 47,432 signatures from registered voters to overturn each of the three school reform bills, SB 1184, SB 1108 and SB 1110.

“Frankly, this is very much a parent-driven effort,” said Lanza, who said the new group “Idahoans for Responsible Education Reform” has no budget and is calling for volunteers.

“We are here because thousands of emails, thousands of people attending rallies across Idaho, and the testimony of parents, school board members, school administrators and teachers did not matter to Gov. Otter and the majority of the state Legislature,” Lanza said.

“Idahoans made it clear that we do not want to trade teachers for laptops and required online courses. And we do not support laws that accomplish little beyond denigrating teachers,” he said. “The governor and Legislature rammed this plan through against the overwhelming opposition of the public. They passed it despite being told by administrators and teachers who will have to implement this poorly designed plan that it will be a financial and educational disaster for Idaho’s public schools.”

At the bill-signing, Luna said his vision for the reform plan is that it will ensure every child has a great teacher, every year of school.

House Education Vice Chair Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, said, “I think every teacher will be a better teacher with the proper utilization of technology in the classroom.”

The bills will take effect right away, thanks to emergency clauses lawmakers rushed through at the end of the legislative session, but if the referendum drive collects enough signatures, voters would have an opportunity to overturn them in the November 2012 election.

Asked about the referendum drive, Otter said, “The people have a responsibility and they have a right and they have the power to engage in a referendum to change whatever they think is wrong. … That’s covered in our Constitution.”

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