February 17, 2011 in Idaho

Idaho school reform plan clears committee

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Betsy Russell photo

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, right, talks with a concerned Robin Nettinga of the Idaho Education Association, left, after his committee voted Thursday to pass all three bills in a controversial school-reform plan that the association opposed. Goedde is the lead legislative sponsor of the bills.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - A controversial plan to raise school class sizes in Idaho while boosting technology and teacher merit pay cleared a Senate committee late Thursday, after two weeks of intense hearings that saw strong public opposition to the move.

The key piece of the package barely squeaked through the Senate Education Committee on a 5-4 vote. That measure, SB 1113, contains the most-disputed pieces: The increases in class sizes in grades 4-12, online course requirements for all high school students, and giving each student a laptop computer.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna told the Senate Education Committee, “This historic piece of legislation is necessary, it’s timely, it’s urgent.” He said, “Let’s remember why we’re here,” pointing to deep cuts Idaho’s schools have suffered in recent years, including a historic $128.5 million funding cut this year. “We have to do something different,” Luna said. “We can’t just continue to cut, cut, cut the current system.”

Luna’s plan would cut an estimated 770 teaching jobs in the next two years, mainly by boosting class sizes; the savings would be funneled into technology upgrades and a new performance-pay system for teachers. At the same time, he’d eliminate most teacher contract rights; make all negotiated teacher contracts expire at the end of each fiscal year; and require all high school students to take four online classes, a number he dropped from his initial proposal of eight.

Luna and Gov. Butch Otter have been promoting the plan since mid-January, and Roger Brown, Otter’s education adviser, told the committee Thursday that it’s “the No. 1 priority for the governor.” Though public input on the plan has been overwhelmingly against it, and its key pieces have been opposed by Idaho school boards, school administrators, teachers and more, Brown said, “Leaders have to lead.”

Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, said that’s true but noted that people in his district have been strongly against the class-size increase and cuts in teaching jobs. “Once in a while a leader has to glance over his shoulder and make sure the people he’s leading are behind him,” Toryanski said. “At least in District 18, the people are a long distance away.”

Toryanski joined Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise, and the panel’s two Democrats, Sens. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, and Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, in opposing SB 1113, but the committee’s five other Republicans all voted in favor of it, including committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who is the lead legislative sponsor of all three bills.

The other two bills, SB 1108 on teacher contracts and SB 1110 on performance pay for teachers, both passed on 6-3 votes, with Andreason joining the two Democrats in opposing them. He said he represents the two largest school districts in the state, and both tell him the plan needs more work, but sponsors have refused to hold it up.

“I’ve received over 1,400 e-mails — 90 percent were against this plan,” Andreason said.

Malepeai said, “I think the process was flawed. … I feel like I’m being rushed into something that has a whole lot of questions.”


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