The Idaho Legislature has already adopted two of the three education reforms sought by state schools superintendent Tom Luna, and the changes are big. Teacher tenure is being phased out in favor of shorter contracts. Collective bargaining for teachers has been gutted. Merit will be introduced as a significant factor in rewarding or laying off teachers.
All of those changes were controversial and have fanned emotional responses across the state. The Idaho Legislature would be wise to stop there and allow citizens to process and evaluate these reforms before introducing more.
But a bill that would push the education community into more online instruction has re-emerged after it looked like that idea would be put off for more study. The original idea was breathtaking: Increase class sizes. Cut 770 teaching positions. Supply all ninth-graders with laptop computers. Predictably, it was met with a fair amount of confusion and outrage.
After that poor reception, the Senate Education Committee pulled the bill back. On Friday, a new version was released that backs away from larger class sizes and fewer teaching positions, but it makes it clear that online instruction would be a significant component of a high school education.
For one thing, it carves out a dedicated portion of education funding for the purchase of laptop computers and technology training. Teachers would be provided “mobile computing devices” starting with the 2012-’13 school year. This distribution expands to high school students starting with the 2013-’14 year until they all have access by 2015-’16. This merely moves the original deadline back by a year.
The new bill also backs off making a certain number of online course mandatory, but it instructs the State Board of Education to create “digital citizenship standards” and consider making online courses a graduation requirement.
Make no mistake, the goal here is to get more students online to cut costs. The original bill was more explicit in achieving those savings by increasing class sizes and eliminating teaching jobs, but now the challenge of instructing children with less money has been handed to districts.
Furthermore, as The Spokesman- Review’s Betsy Russell has reported, the projected savings from increased online instruction will be largely spent on the new merit-pay initiative. The net savings, according to a State Board of Education assessment, is negligible.
This bill represents a revolutionary way of instructing high school students in Idaho, so the process should be thoughtful and deliberative. As is, students entering the ninth grade as soon as 2012 could be affected. These changes have come too late in the session for Idaho citizens to sort through.
The Legislature would be wise to study the issue, hold town hall gatherings and come back next year with a plan that has been thoroughly debated.