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Idaho Senate panel sides with Luna on reform

Tue., March 22, 2011, 5:17 p.m.

Idaho state schools Supt. Tom Luna, center, confers with his chief of staff, Luci Willits, before the Senate Education Committee takes up his final school reform bill on Tuesday; at left is Luna aide Jason Hancock, who drafted the bill. (Betsy Russell)
Idaho state schools Supt. Tom Luna, center, confers with his chief of staff, Luci Willits, before the Senate Education Committee takes up his final school reform bill on Tuesday; at left is Luna aide Jason Hancock, who drafted the bill. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Coeur d’Alene Sen. John Goedde claimed a victory Tuesday in the school-reform fight, as the Senate committee he chairs approved state schools Supt. Tom Luna’s final school reform bill on a 6-3 vote - after a series of education stakeholders invited to address the panel unanimously opposed it.

“There never is a good time to institute change,” Goedde said. “But the third bill was critical in the change that’s been envisioned by the superintendent and the governor, and I think down the road 10 years, we’ll wonder why it took us so long.”

The third bill, SB 1184, shifts millions from the state’s main funding stream for teacher salaries into technology boosts, including purchasing laptop computers for teachers next year, then phasing them in for every Idaho high school student in the following years. Also, starting in 2013, it would shift money from the same source into a teacher merit-pay bonus plan.

The first version of the bill, SB 1113, sought to raise class sizes in grades 4-12 and eliminate 770 teaching jobs in the next two years to get the money for technology and performance pay. The new version just shifts the money within the existing school budget, leaving it up to local school districts to decide how to cope with the cut in teacher salary money.

“We’ve addressed the concerns - that’s the process,” Luna said after the vote. He said between the new bill, which still must pass the Senate and House, and the two already signed into law, SB 1108 on teacher contracts and SB 1110 on teacher performance pay, “We have accomplished comprehensive reform in Idaho.”

Representatives of Idaho school boards, administrators, teachers and parents all urged the Senate Education Committee not to pass the bill.

Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, said, “Idaho could lose up to a quarter of its current teaching jobs. Think about what that will do to class size. How is this going to attract teachers to Idaho? … Worst of all, what does it mean for Idaho’s children?”

Phil Homer, legislative liaison for the Idaho Association of School Administrators, told the senators, “We strongly disagree with the funding mechanism.”

Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, said her members want more flexibility on how to cope with shrinking state funding - not more mandates. “Unfortunately, we believe that this legislation as written takes some of that flexibility away from school districts by putting some of the funding into line items over which school districts have very little say and may not be needed.” School board members want a survey of existing technology in use in Idaho schools before purchasing more, she said, adding, “A law that forces a reduction in funding over a five-year period” is “an unprecedented move, and one that we cannot support.”

The bill keeps in place nearly everything that was in the earlier version but the class-size increases. Instead of requiring all high school students to take a certain number of online courses, it directs the state Board of Education to set 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, the same timeline envisioned in the original bill.

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.

The bill pushes the laptop-buying plan back a year compared to the earlier version, 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.

In an odd moment during Tuesday’s meeting, Gov. Butch Otter’s education adviser, Roger Brown, told the senators the new version of the bill no longer would let parents enroll students in online classes unless their local school districts give the OK, but that’s not what the bill says.

“We have deferred to the district or the school as the gatekeeper on whether a child can register for an online course,” Brown said. But But SB 1184, on page 22, says, “Beginning with the 2012-2013 school year, parents and guardians of secondary students shall have the right to enroll such students in any online course, with or without the permission of the school district or public charter school in which the student is enrolled.” A portion of the school’s state funding would be funneled to the online course provider through a formula laid out in the bill.

Goedde, the bill’s lead legislative sponsor, said, “I think it made some improvements in 1113 without sacrificing the goal of reform, and this piece was to develop the 21st Century classroom. We have to do that with giving teachers the training and the equipment to improve the education of our students.”

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