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Questions raised about Idaho school reforms

Tue., Jan. 18, 2011, 4:30 p.m.

Idaho state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna pitches his education reform plan to lawmakers on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2010, in Boise, Idaho. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)
State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna makes his budget presentation to lawmakers on the joint budget and education committees on Tuesday. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Key Idaho lawmakers raised serious questions Tuesday about state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna’s sweeping education reform plan, which he detailed to nearly half the Legislature in a massive joint committee hearing.

Luna’s plan relies on raising class sizes and employing fewer teachers, administrators and other school workers over the next two years, and funneling the savings into technology upgrades, a teacher pay-for-performance plan and other reforms.

“I would suggest that it is not on greased skids at this point,” said Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene. “I would anticipate hours of additional questions.”

Goedde said Idaho’s school facilities simply may not have room to increase class sizes. “It’s a question that at least hasn’t been addressed at this point,” he said. “That’s the linchpin in this whole funding, so if that falls apart I don’t know where we go.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, said it’s misleading to rely on the current average statewide student-teacher ratio of less than 20 when considering the plan. “In reality, in my district anyway … there are teachers with 35, 36, 38 students - and they’re already squeezed into rooms,” she said.

Luna on Tuesday presented his budget proposal and reform plan to the Legislature’s joint budget committee, which was joined by both the House and Senate education committees at the hearing. A total of 47 lawmakers listened to Luna’s presentation and peppered him with questions.

“What we have today is the ‘new normal,’” Luna told lawmakers after detailing the $128.5 million in budget cuts that public schools were hit with this year. He said Idahoans don’t want tax increases to restore school funding.

“By changing the system we will put our public schools back on firm financial footing in this new economy we face in Idaho,” he said. “The entire system will be funded by primarily finding cost savings and efficiencies in the current system and then reinvesting them back into the classroom.”

Keough said, “I applaud the superintendent for thinking outside the box, but we really don’t have enough detail budget-wise or policy-wise to make a decision. This really does turn our system upside down, and there are huge policy issues with that.”

Among other changes, Luna also is proposing to limit all negotiated teacher contracts to one year and eliminate tenure for new Idaho teachers.

“The practical application of the proposal may not be possible this year, due to constraints within the existing framework that we legally can’t get out of,” Keough said.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said under Luna’s proposals, Idaho would lose between 770 and 825 teachers over the next two years, depending on how growth is forecast. It also would eliminate 300 classified personnel, such as classroom aides and janitors, in school districts, and would have about 60 fewer school administrators.

“You indicated that the economy demands this type of change,” he told Luna. “I have to wonder in my mind why a thousand less people working helps the economy.”

Luna responded, “Understand that through attrition, most if not all of these positions can be absorbed.”

By increasing class sizes in grades 4 through 12 and requiring two online classes a year for every high-schooler, Luna said his plan would free up $4.7 million a year to buy laptop computers for every student, starting with next year’s 9th graders; $38 million for teacher performance bonuses next year and $51.3 million in each subsequent year; and millions more to restore teacher salaries to pre-budget-cut levels, build a student data system and more.

“We can have an education system that educates more students at a higher level with limited resources,” Luna said.

Luna also estimated that as student enrollments continue to grow in the coming years, some of the lost teaching positions could be added back; over five years, the net loss of teachers would be about 320, he said.

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