December 14, 2012 in Idaho

Foes warn against reviving Idaho school reform laws

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE – Leaders of the campaign to defeat Idaho’s controversial “Students Come First” school reform laws are warning against bringing back pieces of the voter-rejected laws in Idaho’s upcoming legislative session.

“Any attempt to resurrect these policies would demonstrate an extreme disregard for the will of voters, and we will not stand by quietly and accept it,” Mike Lanza and Maria Greeley said in a joint statement this week. “School policy cannot be a top-down mandate dictated by politicians; we tried that and voters decided it was a resounding failure.”

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has been reaching out to all sides on education reform, including Lanza and Greeley, since voters turned down all three reform laws in a historic and overwhelming referendum vote on Nov. 6.

But last week, in a speech to 400 lawmakers, government officials, business leaders and others at the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho annual conference, Otter said he’d recently seen a statewide poll that convinced him voters actually want some parts of the failed measures.

“I believe we’re going to have in this legislative session a revisit of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 or parts and pieces thereof,” Otter said. “The question was, that we asked in the poll, is what parts of it did you like? … And we got back some fairly good numbers that I think that we can rely on. There were parts and pieces of every one of those that folks did like.”

Lanza countered, “We just had the ultimate poll.”

In the Nov. 6 election, Idaho voters rejected Proposition 1, removing most collective bargaining rights from Idaho teachers, by 57.1 percent; Proposition 2, instituting a merit-pay bonus system, by 58 percent; and Proposition 3, requiring laptop computers for every Idaho high school student along with a new focus on online learning, by 66.7 percent – a whopping two-thirds.

The poll that Otter referenced was conducted by Education Voters of Idaho, a secretive group that funneled secret contributions into statewide TV ads in favor of the failed propositions, and only revealed its donors after a court ordered it to do so. Though promoted as a group representing Idaho parents, it turned out to be funded largely by billionaires including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Albertson’s heir Joe Scott.

John Foster, executive director of EVI, said Friday that he won’t release the poll or any information about it. “It was just something we did post-election that we privately shared with a couple of people and didn’t have any intention of making public,” he said.

Otter told ATI that he’s working on putting together a 33-member stakeholder group, overseen by the State Board of Education, to explore school reform issues and make recommendations. It’ll include representatives from all sides, he said, and “make some recommendations and some investigations on exactly why they failed when we thought that they should have passed, and where we failed in our construction of that enabling legislation.”

He added, “It will be an ongoing process. So there’ll be some early ideas that’ll come forward; we won’t get ‘em all finished by the end” of this year’s legislative session.

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and the lead legislative sponsor of the failed laws, has suggested small pieces like a requirement within Proposition 1 that school district labor negotiations be held in open session should be revived.

“I think there’s parts of what we offered that have general support,” Goedde said.

But Lanza and Greeley said the failed laws shouldn’t be the starting point.

“Let’s go back to ground zero – we should not be talking about bringing back laws that were overwhelmingly rejected,” Lanza said.

He and Greeley called for the 2013 Legislature to address only the school funding issues brought about by the laws’ repeal, to keep school districts “whole” in their funding for the current school year. Lawmakers must address that, because the laws’ repeal leaves $22.4 million within the current year’s public school budget unallocated – because it was tabbed for programs that now are no longer authorized.

“This money should go to the schools, and it shouldn’t be used for other agendas,” Lanza said. “This is budgetary housekeeping that the Legislature could do quickly.”

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna warned the State Board of Education at its meeting in Coeur d’Alene this week that lawmakers may try to grab that money for other uses.

“There’s the hope and there’s my expectation that we find a way to keep these dollars in K-12 education,” Luna told the state board. “There’s also talk about that, since these laws were overturned and if the people spoke and it’s their decision, then take this money and use it for personal property tax relief.”

Lanza and Greeley urged against any such moves. “We hear murmurs that some legislators cynically want to ‘teach a lesson’ to voters who rejected the Luna laws by not giving schools the money promised to them,” they said. “Voters will hold accountable those legislators who willfully damage our schools out of a desire to execute some political vendetta.”

The two said they’ve already participated in numerous meetings with other stakeholders, from the state teachers’ union to the Idaho School Boards Association to business groups to district superintendents to the governor’s office. So far, they said, all sides have expressed broad agreement that any new school reform proposals should be aimed directly at improving student achievement. That’ll take time, they said – and recommendations likely couldn’t be finalized until the 2014 legislative session.

State Board of Education spokeswoman Marilyn Whitney said the board isn’t commenting about the effort at this point. “Details are still being worked out,” she said. “My understanding is it’s going to be something the governor discusses at his State of the State address” on the opening day of the 2013 legislative session in January.


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