February 15, 2011 in Idaho

Latest reform plan for Idaho schools would tweak laptop, online rules

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Betsy Russell photo

Former WSU Cougar Bob Bratkowski, right, was let go by the Bengals and joins the Falcons as QBs coach.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE – A retooled version of Idaho Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna’s school reform plan was introduced Monday, but there was no change in the most controversial provision: Raising class sizes and cutting hundreds of teaching jobs.

Instead, Luna proposed reducing his requirement for online classes for every high-school student from six classes to four; more flexibility for school districts to decide in what year students should be given laptop computers, rather than requiring them to go to all ninth-graders; and elimination of the clause requiring that students be given ownership of the laptops when they graduate.

“Nobody wants to see class sizes get bigger,” Luna aide Jason Hancock told the Senate Education Committee. But, he said, “Keep in mind that until the mid-’90s, Idaho’s class sizes were higher than they’re going to be under this change and we were still able to have a functioning education system at those levels.”

It’s the change in the school class-size funding formula that provides the millions in savings Luna’s plan uses to funnel into technology upgrades, a teacher pay-for-performance plan and other reforms. Luna said Monday that under current law, school districts that don’t want class sizes increased have the flexibility to cut in other areas instead – like teacher pay.

“Ultimately … class sizes will be determined at the local level,” Luna told the committee, which quickly voted to introduce the new version of his reform plan, but will continue examining it in daily committee meetings this week.

The new version is separated into three bills, rather than two; there’s still one changing labor laws regarding teachers, including eliminating tenure for new teachers and limiting all negotiated teacher contracts to just one year; and a separate bill making the changes in class size and technology upgrades. The third breaks out the teacher pay-for-performance plan as a separate bill.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, hailed the changes. “I think they’re positive,” said Goedde, who is the lead sponsor of the bills, along with Luna, Gov. Butch Otter, Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill and House Speaker Lawerence Denney.

Goedde acknowledged that many people from Coeur d’Alene – parents, teachers, business owners and others – traveled to Boise last week to testify against the bills, and that many raised deep concerns about increasing class sizes.

Among them: Tony Norris, a small-business owner and father of two from Coeur d’Alene, told the committee, “If my fourth-grader, who’s 10, came to me and said, ‘I’m going to have a birthday party with 35 of my friends,’ I don’t think even with my wife’s help, I would ever say that’s a good idea.”

Meghan Ridley, a special education teacher from Coeur d’Alene, told the senators last week that one of her students told her, “ ‘I’d love a laptop, but I’d rather read 25,000 books than lose my teacher.’ And this is a kid that struggles with reading.”

Luna’s plan relies on phased-in hikes in class sizes in grades 4-12 over the next five years. In the first two years, he estimates his plan would result in eliminating 770 teaching positions across the state.

Goedde said he thinks concerns about class sizes can be alleviated with local flexibility to take the cuts elsewhere, such as in teacher pay, and possibly by getting more of Idaho’s school administrators to each teach a class.

“The idea of administrators teaching a class I think needs additional investigation,” he said. “I’ve had complaints over my 11 years here that administrators are out of touch with classroom instructors. What better way to get them in touch than to put them in the classroom?”

The new versions of the bills also make a series of smaller changes, including restoring the minimum of 10 days for teachers to sign a proposed contract; requiring a performance evaluation before a teacher could be dismissed, unless it’s part of a layoff; and requiring the state Board of Education to develop “digital citizenship standards” for students taking online courses.

The two Democrats on the Senate Education Committee, Sens. Edgar Malepeai of Pocatello and Nicole LeFavour of Boise, issued a statement Monday opposing the plan; last week’s public testimony was overwhelmingly against it.

“In my 10 years as a legislator, I have never seen such a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment in opposition to a proposal as I’ve seen against Tom Luna’s plan to eliminate experienced teachers and increase class sizes,” Malepeai said.


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