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Goedde wants school reform plan changed

More than a thousand people packed closely into Capitol Park across from the state capitol on Monday, to rally against the proposed school-reform plan that would raise Idaho's class sizes, boost technology and cut hundreds of teaching jobs. (Betsy Russell)
More than a thousand people packed closely into Capitol Park across from the state capitol on Monday, to rally against the proposed school-reform plan that would raise Idaho's class sizes, boost technology and cut hundreds of teaching jobs. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - A controversial school reform plan that calls for larger classes, fewer teachers and more technology may be pulled back for changes at the urging of a Coeur d’Alene senator, after it narrowly cleared the Senate Education Committee last week.

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who chairs the committee, met with representatives of three key education groups Monday - teachers, school administrators and school board members - for more than six hours, and came out with a long list of possible changes to the bill.

Goedde said he wasn’t trying to reach a consensus but wants to “make whatever moves forward a better bill.”

The move came as parents, students, teachers and others rallied across the state Monday against the plan; more than a thousand people turned out for a rally in a Boise park across from the state Capitol, and in Coeur d’Alene, more than 200 marched down Sherman Avenue through downtown amid occasional snow flurries. Well-attended rallies also were held in eight other cities across the state.

Goedde, the lead legislative sponsor of the three-bill package, said he still thinks the bills have to move forward this year “because we’re talking about a systemic change in the delivery of education.”

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna, in proposing the plan, said Idaho can’t afford to restore big funding cuts schools suffered this year, and the alternative is to improve education by spending existing funds differently.

Among the questions discussed at length at Goedde’s Monday meeting: Why school districts are being ordered to pay for online courses, at a preset rate, but will have no say over which providers will deliver the courses to their students.

Two major news articles over the weekend, one from the Associated Press and another from the Idaho Statesman, highlighted ties between Luna and for-profit education companies that could profit from the reform plan by providing online courses to Idaho students at state expense. In both articles, Luna and his spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, said decisions about providers will be left to local school districts.

However, the legislation says specifically that school districts “may not prescribe the provider of such courses.” Instead, individual parents and students can go to any provider that meets state standards, and districts will have to pay.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, an opponent of the plan, said, “That sounds like chaos.” She predicted that Idaho parents would be bombarded with marketing campaigns by for-profit education companies and might get stuck with the bills if the classes cost more than the legislation specifies districts must pay.

McGrath said in an e-mail Monday, “We believe it is critical to give parents and families more choice within public education to ensure every student can reach his or her full potential.”

The legislation also specifies that a multimillion-dollar contract for laptop computers that will be purchased for every Idaho high school student under the plan, along with a maintenance contract for those computers, will be issued by the state superintendent’s office, not by individual school districts.

Phil Homer, lobbyist for the school administrators association, said the bills are causing school districts “some angst.” He said school districts are held accountable for student progress. But, he said, “When a student can take any course that they choose, how can we be held accountable for that?”

The legislation also sets up potential budget headaches for school districts, Homer said, by telling students they can take as many online courses as they want - up to the six-period maximum that constitutes a full load - and the districts must pay. But school districts set their budgets in June for the following school year.

“You don’t know what kids are going to go where,” Homer said. “I don’t know how they’re going to do it.”

The legislation creates a complex funding mechanism in which school districts would be required to “remit” to online course providers a set amount based on the number of courses taken, with the money coming out of their regular per-student funding from the state. Though school districts could decide which classes they want to require to be taken online - the reform plan calls for four mandatory online classes for every high-school student - they couldn’t stop students from taking more than that at district expense.

Overall, the plan calls for increasing class sizes in grades 4-12 and eliminating 770 teaching jobs in the next two years, to save millions that would be funneled into technology upgrades, including a laptop computer for every student, a teacher performance-pay plan and boosting now-frozen teacher salaries. The package also includes measures eliminating many existing collective bargaining rights for teachers, limiting negotiated contracts to just salaries and benefits and making them expire each fiscal year.

At the Boise rally, the crowd chanted “kill the bills, kill the bills,” and local school board member Rory Jones declared, “This bill solves one problem and one problem only, and that is the lack of resolve to fund public schools.”

Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, said her group supports parts of the plan, including trimming back collective bargaining rights, but strongly opposes the increases in class sizes and other changes in school district funding.

“Any time we can talk about improving the bill, we’re certainly in favor of that,” she said.

Late Monday, Goedde said no final decisions have been made but that there’s “a strong possibility” that at least the main bill in the package, SB 1113, will be pulled back to the Education Committee. “I don’t know yet about the others,” he said.