March 3, 2011 in Opinion

Editorial: Idaho school reform plan starts talks for solutions

 

The reality is that Idaho needs to change its public school system after being hit last year with a $128.5 million budget cut. Gov. Butch Otter’s newest budget holds education spending to this level, and there are no serious efforts to raise revenue.

In response, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna unveiled a sweeping proposal in January that would cut 770 teaching jobs, introduce merit pay for teachers, increase class sizes, mandate a certain number of online courses and provide all ninth-graders with laptop computers. The plan has several features that challenge conventional views about education, so it would need acceptance from teachers, school administrators, parents and others.

It is a lot to absorb in a short amount of time.

Educators – and some students – have come out in force against the plan. Public opinion would appear to be unfavorable. Late Tuesday, key state senators indicated they may pull back Senate Bill 1113, which addresses class size, teacher job losses and increased technology, and replace it with a task force that would study the questions that have arisen from the controversial proposal.

However, two other bills are still alive. Senate Bill 1110 would introduce a merit-pay system to reward better teachers. Senate Bill 1108 would restrict the collective bargaining rights of teachers. We support merit pay but fear the collective bargaining measure is so divisive that it could undermine other reforms. As is, there is widespread perception among teachers that the overall goal is to punish them, not give students a better education.

The class-size criticism is legitimate. While Luna noted that the increase would mean an average bump from 18.2 to 19.8 students per teacher, K-3 classes would be exempt. This means the increases concentrate in grades 4 through 12. In Boise, for instance, class sizes in high school would increase from 24.7 to 28.8, according to the Idaho Statesman. Middle schools would see a similar increase. The more broadly classroom teachers spread their attention, the more that quality of instruction could be expected to suffer.

The technology questions are legitimate. To save money, students would be mandated to take a number of courses online. Giving them laptops would ensure access to these classes. Luna has since backed off this proposal and would allow districts to spend this technology money as they see fit. The Idaho Statesman reports that Luna once had ties to the for-profit education industry, so legislators need to make sure any technology-related changes are designed to improve student learning in an ethical fashion.

Luna has faced a lot of criticism for his proposal, but it is unfair to paint him as an enemy of public education. He was handed unprecedented spending cuts and then successfully battled for money from a state education endowment fund to mitigate the damage. However, he did not sufficiently consult with teachers in drawing up his dramatic plan. On the other hand, critics need to step forward with their solutions.

Idahoans need more time to study changes that carry long-term consequences for the education system. Luna’s plan starts that conversation, but it is too soon to adopt it.

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