February 22, 2011 in Idaho

Lawmaker, protesters take aim at Idaho school reform plan

By The Spokesman-Review
Kathy Plonka photoBuy this photo

“She’s supposed to go to kindergarten in the fall,” said Olivia Rhodes’s stepfather Darren Thiesen of Rathdrum as she held her sign at the education rally in Coeur d’Alene on Monday, February 21, 2011. Hundreds gathered at Coeur d’Alene City Hall and marched to Human Rights Education Institute to protest the school reform bill.
(Full-size photo)

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.

State 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 1,000 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 pre-set 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.

State Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, an opponent of the plan, said, “That sounds like chaos.” She predicted that Idaho parents would be bombarded in 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 Idaho Association of School Administrators, 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.

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