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Idaho Senate panel passes heavily-opposed education reform measures

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 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 high school course requirements, and laptop computers for students.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna told the Senate Education Committee, “This historic piece of legislation is necessary, it’s timely, it’s urgent.”

“Let’s remember why we’re here,” he added, pointing to deep cuts Idaho’s schools have suffered in recent years. “We have to do something different. We can’t just continue to cut, cut, cut the current system.”

Luna’s plan would cut an estimated 770 teaching jobs over 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.

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.” Although 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, 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; the committee’s five other Republicans, including committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the lead sponsor of all three bills, voted in favor.

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.

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