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Third school reform bill heads to Idaho House

Idaho state schools Supt. Tom Luna presents SB 1184, his third school reform bill, to the House Education Committee on Tuesday morning. (Betsy Russell)
Idaho state schools Supt. Tom Luna presents SB 1184, his third school reform bill, to the House Education Committee on Tuesday morning. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - State schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s third and final school reform bill, which narrowly passed the Senate last week, cleared an Idaho House committee today on a 12-6 vote and headed for final passage in the House.

“This bill helps supply more tools to our teachers,” Luna told the House Education Committee. “This bill is the bill that reforms our classrooms.”

The bill shifts funds from teacher salaries to technology purchases, and also to fund a new merit-pay bonus plan for teachers starting in 2013. The 24-page bill also makes a series of changes in how Idaho’s schools are funded and brings in a new focus on online learning, while phasing in a plan to have one laptop computer or other “mobile computing device” for every high school student in Idaho.

The bill was approved on a 12-6 vote despite unanimous opposition from a series of education groups invited to testify, including representatives of teachers, school administrators, parents and school boards.

“This legislation trades teachers for technology,” Idaho Education Association President Sherri Wood told the lawmakers.

Roger Brown, aide to Gov. Butch Otter, said, “Our students must be prepared for life in an online world. … This is a profound investment in the kind of education that will enable Idaho’s students to compete globally.” He reiterated that “this legislative package is the governor’s top priority.”

But Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, who supported Luna’s other reform bills, spoke out against the bill, SB 1184. He said, “We don’t need the bill. Computer technology is just surging forth - it’s astounding.” He’s visited schools and seen it, he said. “To stop it would be like trying to hold the ocean back with a pitchfork.” He said, “They’re already … loaded up with computer devices, to the gills. … It’s tremendous. It’s exciting to see.”

Rep. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, speaking in favor of the bill, said, “This gives power to parents to escape the effects of a poor teacher or a teacher that student doesn’t get along with … by being able to take online classes. … My perspective is if you have a good teacher you wouldn’t take an online class, but that’s not always the case.”

Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, asked Luna aide Jason Hancock why SB 1184 includes a clause that allows parents to sign up their students for any online course “with or without” the permission of their school or district, and the districts have to pay for it. “I don’t understand why that provision is in there,” Cronin said. “Clearly we’re taking local control away from the districts where you would think that the school boards would want to be controlling the quality of the course work that would be done online. … Can you talk about why the districts lose control there?”

Hancock replied, “I don’t see how control gets any more local than a parent getting to decide what kind of a class their child takes; that’s as local as it gets.”

Once Idaho has one “mobile computing device” for every high school student, Luna told lawmakers, “It provides not only an effective way to educate our students, but a more efficient way. Because when we have this one-to-one ratio, then this device, whether it be an iPad or a laptop … becomes the textbook … it becomes the math calculator … it’s the word processor … It serves multiple purposes. Rather than spending millions of dollars on printed, bound textbooks that are outdated and they wear out quickly, we move to an e-type of textbook, which is becoming more and more common.”

Luna said that shift also would allow Idaho to customize its textbooks, whereas textbook content now is determined by educators in Texas and California, because textbook designers build around population bases and their desires. “Now with the miracle of technology, states and school districts can customize what they want their textbooks to look like,” he said.

Hancock said the bill’s repeal of the $2,000-per-year payments for five years to teachers earning national board master teacher certification is offset by a provision in the already-passed SB 1110; in that teacher pay-for-performance bill, it says “notwithstanding” the bill’s other requirements, employees who earned national board certification prior to July 1, 2011, who no longer are receiving the payments, would get them again once that bill goes into effect in 2013 “until all moneys that would have been paid under the previous provisions … have been paid.”

That means that the roughly 55 Idaho teachers who were receiving the payments in 2010 and didn’t get them this year due to budget cuts, also wouldn’t get them next year, but they’d finish up the payments in later years.

Three Republicans on the committee, Bateman and Reps. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, and Jeff Nesset, R-Lewiston, joined the panel’s three Democrats in opposing the bill; all other Republicans on the panel supported it. The bill now moves to the full House; if it passes there, the governor has pledged to sign it into law.

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