March 18, 2011 in Idaho

Lawmakers unveil new Idaho school reform bill

By The Spokesman-Review
 
More Online

Read the bill and more at the Eye on Boise blog

BOISE - Idaho lawmakers unveiled the new version of school reform legislation Friday, and it’s a lot like the old version that stalled in the state Senate - it calls for phasing in new laptop computers for every Idaho high school student, diverting school district funds to online course providers, and shifting funding from teachers to technology.

The one big difference from SB 1113, the controversial earlier version: It doesn’t require larger class sizes and cutting 770 Idaho teaching jobs in the next two years to pay for it all. Instead, the money is taken from the existing school budget and local districts would have to decide how to make the cuts.

“It would be wonderful if our economy turned around and we could start putting more money into education,” said Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who is sponsoring the bill along with state schools Supt. Tom Luna and Gov. Butch Otter. “At some point, that’s going to happen. In the meantime, what this bill does is it gives some legislative direction to local districts in some specific areas. … We’re setting direction for a vision of the 21st century classroom, and there is no additional money. So we have to use the funds that we have in a manner that accomplishes the goal.”

The new bill drew immediate opposition from Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, who didn’t oppose introducing the measure but said he can’t support it. “The bill takes more money from salary-based apportionment for the purpose of buying technology. For me, that’s a bridge too far,” Davis said. “I personally would rather us defer how we’re going to pay for that, focus on the approach of what should be done, and then as a state go and find the revenue to do it.”

Salary-based apportionment is the funding stream from the state to local school districts that largely funds teacher salaries. Under the bill, millions would be diverted from that fund to pay for laptops, other technology and a teacher merit-pay plan that already has passed the Legislature and been signed into law, but so far is unfunded.

Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, said, “I want to be clear, we’re not opposed to technology. Teachers use it every day in their classrooms, and it’s a great educational tool. But the obsession by Supt. Luna at the expense of the human resource just doesn’t make any sense.”

Wood said, “You don’t add new programs and trinkets like laptops when you can’t even afford basic needs.”

The bill pushes the laptop-buying plan back a year, providing laptops and training to teachers in the 2012-13 school year, then to a third of high school students the following year, then another third the year after, and continuing each year so there’s one laptop for every student.

It still envisions requirements for online courses; the state Board of Education would be charged with setting rules requiring online courses as a graduation requirement starting with the Class of 2016 - that’s students who start 9th grade in the fall of 2012.

And the bill, like SB 1113, still permits parents to enroll students in online classes with or without the permission of their local school districts, and requires the school districts to pay for the classes through a formula that directs part of the district’s state funding to the online provider.

Goedde said the bill by itself doesn’t require online courses, since the state Board of Education would have to write that rule. “There is still the opportunity for them to take online classes,” he said. “I believe that more and more school districts are going to look to online classes as a way to balance their budget. And certainly the laptops can be used in that manner, but there are so many other things that laptops can be used for to enrich a traditional curriculum.”

The bill calls for the state to contract for the purchase, repair and support of the laptops starting in fiscal year 2013 at $1.7 million, when the laptops would go to teachers, and ramping up to $10 million the next year, $13 million in 2015 and more than $16 million in 2016.

Cuts in salary-based apportionment would pay for that.

“Districts are going to decide how they’re going to deal with those cuts at the local level,” said Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for state schools Supt. Tom Luna.

SB 1113 was the third bill in Luna’s three-bill reform package; the first two, SB 1108 removing most collective bargaining rights from teachers, and SB 1110 setting up a teacher merit pay plan, both have passed and were signed into law by Gov. Butch Otter on Thursday.

On Friday, the IEA launched a referendum campaign to gather signatures for a possible 2012 ballot measure to overturn both those bills. Wood said the group will decide in mid-April whether to go forward with the referendum campaign; it filed initial paperwork Friday with the Idaho Secretary of State’s office.

SB 1113 stalled after it squeaked through Goedde’s committee on a 5-4 vote; it was then sent back to the committee. Davis said, “In my opinion, SB 1113 was not going to pass the … Idaho State Senate.” Asked if the same was true of the new bill, he said, “I don’t know.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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