Luna moves on reforms even as referendums make ballot
BOISE - Idaho state schools chief Tom Luna opened the deliberations of a 39-member task force Monday that’ll help determine how to implement big new school technology investments, even as the Idaho Secretary of State’s office issued certificates officially placing three referendums on the November 2012 ballot to overturn the reforms.
The final tally, issued Monday, showed each of the three referendum petitions on Luna’s “Students Come First” reform bills received more than 74,000 signatures, far more than the required 47,432.
Nevertheless, Luna said Monday, “We’re implementing the law. … It’s the law of the land. We can’t have the education system in Idaho in limbo, so our job now is to implement this properly. … That’s why this committee is meeting today.”
Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, agreed. “You move forward,” said Goedde, who sponsored the bills and serves on the task force. “It’s still law.”
The three bills, which Luna has dubbed “Students Come First,” remove most collective bargaining rights from Idaho teachers, impose a new merit-pay plan, and shift funds from teacher salaries to technology boosts, including a phased-in program to provide every Idaho high school student with a “mobile computing device” within five years and a new focus on online learning.
“We’ve got our work ahead of us,” said House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene. “We’ll just move forward as if the referendums are not going to pass.”
The task force, which met all day Monday, is scheduled to hear Tuesday from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise.
“This is just the beginning,” Luna said. “There’s meetings every month from here on out.”
Luna said the two former governors, who chair the Digital Learning Council, a group they launched in 2010 to promote “high quality digital learning,” contacted him and “wanted to know how they could help.” Idaho won’t pay anything to bring the two to Boise to address the task force, Luna’s office said.
Luna told the task force Idaho must become a “global leader” in education, saying, “Our economic competition is global and it’s focused and it’s fierce and unrelenting.” He said, “The fact is that everyone in the world wants our jobs, and for the first time ever they have the means to take them.” Jobs will go “where the educated workforce is,” he said. “Intellectual capacity is the currency of the 21st century, and other countries have figured this out.”
Luna said the answer is “a comprehensive and systemic change” to Idaho’s education system, focusing on technology and online learning. “We have to transform every classroom in Idaho. Some are already on the way there,” he said. “We have to bring 21st century technology and all that it makes possible into every classroom.” He said that’s the key to making sure all students have up-to-date educational opportunity, no matter where they live, and despite the state’s budget crunch.
“Do we wait for the economy to improve, do we wait for increased revenues? We can’t,” he said. “We have to be willing to spend the money that we know we have differently in order to give every student equal educational opportunity.”
Luna’s reforms have been particularly controversial as they come at a time when Idaho is cutting, not increasing, funding for schools. As a result, the bills tap teacher salary funds to pay for the new technology initiative and the merit-pay bonuses; hundreds of teaching jobs could be eliminated, depending on how local school districts cope with the cuts.
Chelsea Gaona-Lincoln, spokeswoman for the Committee to Recall Tom Luna, said her group has collected more than 75,000 signatures in an attempt to force a recall election against Luna in August; it has until June 27 to gather 158,107 to force a special election.
Goana-Lincoln, whose group has criticized Luna for not revealing his reform plan until after he was re-elected in 2010, said Luna’s task force is now “having that discussion that should have taken place when he was getting re-elected … since it didn’t happen ahead of time.”