BOISE - Idaho’s state Senate voted 20-15 on Thursday to pass two controversial school-reform bills, including a far-reaching measure to strip the state’s teachers of many of their existing contract rights.
Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the measure’s lead sponsor, told the Senate, “This bill’s time has come.” He said, “There are some who say that these changes will cause teachers to flee Idaho. Right now we are losing teachers every day.” They’re going to private industry, Goedde said, where there may be fewer contract rights, but higher pay.
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said during the tense, five-hour-long debate, “The system we have right now is as unfair as any system I can think of. This may not be the best way, but it’s definitely a better way.”
But most of the debate was against the bills, SB 1108 on teacher contracts and SB 1110, setting up a teacher performance pay plan.
“This is a direct slap in the face to every teacher,” declared Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle. “When we tell them they are not valued for the job they do and that we’re going to break every contract they have because long-term contracts are bad, I disagree that this isn’t about teachers. This is about teachers, and they do do a good job.”
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “One of my concerns with this bill, SB 1108, is the stakeholders were not a part of this discussion up-front.” Keough said the bill would “turn upside down teacher contract law” in the midst of a financial crisis, and said her local school officials don’t want it pushed through now.
But both bills passed the Senate on identical, 20-15 votes, with bipartisan opposition. Only Republican senators voted in favor; North Idaho senators split. Both measures now move to the House, where there’s more support for them; House Education Committee Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, who backs the bills, already has scheduled committee hearings on them starting Tuesday morning. He called them “some of the most important things we’re going to do this year.”
The third bill in the three-bill school reform package, all proposed by state schools Supt. Tom Luna, remains stalled in the Senate Education Committee, after Goedde pulled it from the Senate on Wednesday amid concerns from GOP senators about its increases in school class sizes.
That’s a centerpiece of Luna’s plan - raising class sizes in grades 4-12 and cutting 770 teaching jobs in the next two years, to save millions that then would be funneled into technology upgrades, a laptop computer for every high school student, more online courses and teacher merit pay.
The merit pay bill, SB 1110, would cost the state $38 million in its first year, fiscal year 2013, and $51.3 million in each subsequent year. Without the third bill, there’s no funding source, Goedde acknowledged. But he said there’s time to address that before the bill would take effect.
Goedde quoted President Obama: “We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.”
Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “Teaching is worthy of greater respect from our society than what we currently give it, and it’s worthy of compensation relative to its importance.” Hammond said he thought the reform plan would create “a new paradigm for instruction.”
All seven of the Senate’s Democrats strongly opposed the bills, which have drawn a huge outpouring of public opposition in legislative hearings, calls, letters and emails.
Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said, “To me it’s astounding that this legislation has come this far and the changes that have been made to it are so minor, in the face of the overwhelming opposition that we have received.”
Across the state, teachers and supporters gathered in candlelight vigils Thursday evening to protest the bills’ passage; about 100 people silently walked around the state Capitol holding candles.
Here’s how North Idaho senators voted on SB 1108:
Voting in favor: Sens. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene; Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene; and Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens.
Voting against: Sens. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle; Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint; and Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow.
Immediately after finishing with that bill, the Senate launched into debate on SB 1110, the teacher performance pay bill. At the end of the fifth straight hour of debate - at 3 p.m. Boise time - that bill passed by the same 20-15 vote as the earlier measure. It, too, now moves to the House.