March 24, 2011 in Idaho

Idaho Senate passes school reform bill

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Betsy Russell photo

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, debates against SB 1184, the school reform bill, in the Senate on Thursday. She asked, “If teachers are laid off to buy laptops, which is what this bill does, who will be in the classroom with them?”
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - A controversial plan to shift millions in state funds from teacher salaries to technology purchases won narrow support in the Idaho Senate on Thursday, virtually ensuring the bill will become law.

“This is landmark legislation,” said Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s lead legislative sponsor; it’s the third piece of state schools Supt. Tom Luna’s three-bill school reform plan. “We have to do things differently, and we do not have more money right now,” Goedde said. So, he said, the state must spend its existing school funds differently. “We must adapt or we risk becoming irrelevant.”

Goedde touted the “1-to-1 laptop program” in the bill, which calls for a laptop computer for every high school student in the state within five years. “Research has shown 1-to-1 ratio in the classroom helps improve student achievement,” Goedde said.

But Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, asked, “If teachers are laid off to buy laptops, which is what this bill does, who will be in the classroom with them?”

Keough, vice-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, said the bill puts the state’s public school budget on “auto-pilot,” requiring specific funding shifts every year for the next five years to cover technology boosts and a new teacher merit-pay bonus program, and giving the state superintendent power over school funding decisions that now belongs to the Legislature.

“I am not opposed to technology,” Keough said. “It’s about how that technology is being integrated.” That varies around the state, she said. “There are places in Idaho that do not have high-speed Internet, and quite frankly, their telephone signal isn’t all that good either.”

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said, “This legislation is going to make it really difficult for my little rural school districts that are already struggling to make ends meet. The bottom line is we’re providing mandates, unnecessary technology and a loss of pay for teachers.”

North Idaho senators were divided on the bill, which passed the Senate on a 20-15 vote and now heads to the House, where there’s more support for it. Gov. Butch Otter already has pledged to sign it into law if it reaches his desk.

He’s already signed the first two bills in Luna’s package, SB 1108, which removes most collective bargaining rights from teachers, and SB 1110, which sets up an as-yet unfunded merit-pay bonus program. The latest bill, SB 1184, provides the funding, shifting it from the state fund for teacher salaries.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, told the Senate he was undecided and struggling over how to vote, because he didn’t want to see class sizes increased. An earlier version of the bill would have raised Idaho class sizes in grades 4-12 and eliminated 770 teaching jobs in the next two years to fund the technology boost and merit-pay bonuses. SB 1182 just shifts the funds from teacher salaries; school districts would have to decide how to deal with the cuts, whether it’s through class-size increases, cuts in salaries and benefits, furloughs or other moves - including asking local voters to raise property taxes.

But Hammond, who voted for both the earlier reform bills, voted yes. He said afterward that he thought legislative budget-writers would restore the cuts to the salary funds, and he wants technology investments funded. “To me this is not a teacher displacement bill,” he said.

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, voted against the bill, while Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, voted for it.


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