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Bill to restore Idaho teacher pay clears Senate

BOISE – The Idaho Senate has unanimously backed a major change to the controversial Students Come First school reform law that requires annual cuts to the teacher salary funds to pay for new classroom technology and teacher merit-pay bonuses.

SB 1331, sponsored by Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and co-sponsored by 15 other senators including Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, would eliminate all the cuts in teacher salary funds. The state still would be required to fund the technology boosts, including phasing in laptop computers for every high school student, and the merit-pay plan, but it wouldn’t be required to cut teacher salary funds to do it.

Goedde was the lead sponsor of the Students Come First laws.

“This is, in my opinion, a very important public policy decision,” Cameron, who opposed the school reform package last year, told the Senate. “This bill is a sign of good news – good news that the economy has shown some improvement, good news that we can adjust the public policy so that we can address the new money directly toward those items … and at the same time provide security for our public school teachers and school districts.”

The bill, which now moves to a House committee, would reverse $34 million in legally required cuts to teacher salary funds over the next five years.

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, a supporter of the Students Come First laws, spoke in favor the bill. He said when he talked with his local school district officials about it, “Their eyes lit up a little bit.” The change will allow school districts to budget and plan with more certainty about their state funds, he said.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said she’d support the bill but still had concerns. “This may be a step in the right direction because it doesn’t mandate that we cut the support for teachers, but sadly it doesn’t guarantee we won’t have to anyway,” she said.

All three of the laws in the Students Come First package are up for a referendum vote in November, after opponents gathered more than 70,000 signatures to force a vote.

In addition to the shifts in funding and the technology and merit-pay provisions, the reform package, pushed by state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, also eliminated most collective bargaining rights for Idaho teachers.