BOISE - The latest campaign ad in Idaho’s school reform fight features Gov. Butch Otter endorsing Propositions 1, 2 and 3 in a positive, feel-good message.
“Education in Idaho is at a crossroads,” the casually dressed governor says in the commercial, which is running statewide, including in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene market. “This election year we’re being asked whether we will keep meaningful education reforms on the books or go back to the old way of doing things.”
The “old way of doing things” refers to Idaho’s laws prior to 2011, when lawmakers enacted the reforms that restricted teachers’ collective bargaining rights, imposed a new merit-pay bonus system, and required big technology boosts including laptop computers for high school students and a new focus on online learning.
“It paints the opposition as being reactionaries, going back to the old ways, which is kind of funny,” said Jim Weatherby, emeritus professor of public policy at Boise State University. “It’s a pretty positive message.”
The ad is sponsored by “Yes for Idaho Education,” the official campaign group backing the three measures. Opponents of the laws collected thousands of signatures to force a voter referendum on the laws; a yes vote would keep them, while a no vote would repeal them.
Ken Burgess, spokesman for the Yes campaign, said the idea behind the ad was partly to defuse ire aimed against state Superintendent Tom Luna, the author of the laws. “All this issue about these things being called the ‘Luna laws’ - we just want to remind everybody from a leadership, statesman standpoint that the governor was as much responsible for this stuff certainly as Tom Luna,” Burgess said. “In fact, Tom Luna never cast a single vote to pass these laws, right? So that’s kind of what we decided we wanted to end with, was getting the governor out there basically delivering the message, that this was the right thing to do from a bigger public policy standpoint.”
Otter didn’t cast votes on the laws either - but he signed all three into law, along with follow-up bills adding emergency clauses to each of the three, making them take effect immediately. Lawmakers pushed those through after signature-gathering began for the referendum; without the emergency clauses, the referendum would have placed all three laws on hold until this year’s election.
Otter also stood by Luna in strong support of the laws throughout the 2011 legislative session, and helped lobby for their passage amid much dissent in the Legislature.
“I’m told that he really did make an effort in lobbying and working behind the scenes in 2011,” Weatherby said.
In the ad, Otter says, “Our reforms give more control to parents and local school boards, provide bonuses to good teachers and put much-needed technology in the classroom.”
Weatherby said, “You would wonder from hearing this message why the NEA is opposed to it. There’s nothing about collective bargaining rights or the union-bashing messages of Frank VanderSloot.”
VanderSloot is running his own ads in favor of the measures, featuring a video clip of Mitt Romney criticizing teachers unions. The National Education Association has donated more than $2.8 million to date to the campaign against the measures, according to campaign finance reports, with much of that going to opponents’ statewide TV ads.
Otter’s claim about the laws giving more control to parents and local school boards is accurate, at least with respect to two areas: Enrollment of students in online classes by parents, and collective bargaining with teachers by local school boards.
Examples of how parents have more control under the laws include the provision in Proposition 3 that parents and students could decide that up to half a student’s high school course load should be taken online, whether or not the local school district agrees, and district funds automatically would be tapped to pay the online provider the parent chooses.
Examples of how local school boards have more control under the laws include a cutoff date for teacher contract negotiations in June, after which, if both sides haven’t reached agreement, school districts could unilaterally impose whatever terms they choose; that happened in at least 21 Idaho school districts this year. Also, under the laws, collective bargaining is limited to just pay and benefits, removing all other issues like class size or schedules, and all contracts expire every year.
The merit-pay bonuses required by the laws are being distributed this year to teachers in schools where student achievement rose. Next year, they’d also go to individual teachers who fill hard-to-fill positions or take on leadership roles.
Weatherby said the “much-needed technology” claim is arguable. “We really don’t know,” he said. “We have a lot of anecdotal information about what classroom teachers and students already have available in terms of that kind of technology.”
The laws require bringing the state to a “one-to-one ratio” of laptop computers to high school students, and setting up wireless networks in every high school; to accomplish that, the state last week signed a $182 million, eight-year contract with Hewlett-Packard Co. to supply the laptops. If Proposition 3 is rejected, the contract would be canceled at no cost to the state.