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Panel OK’s final school reform bill

Wed., March 23, 2011

BOISE – An Idaho Senate committee approved state schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s final school reform bill on a 6-3 vote Tuesday, after representatives of Idaho school boards, administrators, teachers and parents invited to address the panel unanimously opposed it.

“There never is a good time to institute change,” said Sen. John Goedde, the Coeur d’Alene Republican who heads the committee. “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, Senate Bill 1184, would shift millions from the state’s main funding stream for teacher salaries into technology boosts, including purchasing laptop computers for teachers in 2012, 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 raise the money for technology and performance pay. The new version would just shift 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.”

The education stakeholders invited to address the Senate Education Committee urged the panel to reject 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,” she said. School board members want a survey of technology already in use in Idaho schools before purchasing more, she said.

The bill keeps in place nearly everything from 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.

And the bill, like SB 1113, still would allow parents to enroll students in online classes without the permission of their local school districts, and would require 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.

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