BOISE – Idaho’s state Senate voted 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.
“There are some who say that these changes will cause teachers to flee Idaho,” Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said. But, “right now we are losing teachers every day,” he said. They’re going to private industry where there may be fewer contract rights, but higher pay, he said.
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said during the tense, five-hour-long debate, “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 a good job.”
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said the bill would “turn upside down teacher contract law” in the midst of a financial crisis.
But both bills passed the Senate on 20-15 votes, with bipartisan opposition. Both measures now move to the House, where Education Committee Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, expects them both to pass. He already has scheduled committee hearings starting Tuesday morning.
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 the 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.
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 e-mails.
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.