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Lawmakers remake controversial education reform bill

Sat., March 19, 2011

BOISE – Idaho lawmakers unveiled a 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 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 Superintendent 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 Superintendent 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.

And the bill, like its predecessor, 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.

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 Luna.

The first two bills in Luna’s three-bill reform package have passed and were signed into law by Gov. Butch Otter on Thursday. They remove most collective bargaining rights from teachers and set up a teacher merit pay plan.

On Friday, the Idaho Education Association launched a referendum campaign to gather signatures for a possible 2012 ballot measure to overturn both those bills.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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