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Idaho school reform becomes personal

Tom Luna, Idaho state superintendent of schools, answers questions after a debate Tuesday. (Betsy Russell)
Tom Luna, Idaho state superintendent of schools, answers questions after a debate Tuesday. (Betsy Russell)

Lawmaker says Luna grabbed arm, berated his stance

BOISE – Here’s how fiery the debate over school reform has gotten in Idaho: After a forum at the City Club of Boise on Tuesday, state Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, accused state schools Superintendent Tom Luna of grabbing his arm after his opening remarks and berating him.

“He grabbed my arm rather forcefully and got in my face and said, ‘That’s the biggest bullshit I’ve ever heard,’ ” Cronin said. “I looked at the people at the lead table and I think they saw that I was visibly alarmed, shaken, but that’s what he said. He grabbed my arm hard enough such that I spilled my water. … When he tried to touch me again, I told him not to touch me.”

Luna’s spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, said, “He never used that language. That’s completely inaccurate.”

The exchange wasn’t picked up on the event’s microphones, and Luna denied afterward that he’d become angry with Cronin at any point during the forum. “I think we both were passionate,” he said.

The clash comes as Idaho considers whether to keep or vote down Luna’s controversial school reform laws via three referendum measures on the November ballot; it’s the hottest debate of the election season in the state.

Luna said, “I was surprised he would use his 12 minutes of comments for personal attacks against me rather than talking about what is in the laws. After his remarks, I leaned over to him and said something to that effect.”

The two clashed in an hourlong forum before a sellout crowd of 450, in which Luna defended the reform laws as the way to help Idaho students succeed in high school and beyond, while Cronin charged they’re not reforms at all, but ways to justify underfunding Idaho schools. Luna dismissed that as a personal attack.

The laws, enacted by state lawmakers in 2011 at Luna’s urging, include technology boosts, laptop computers for all high school students, a new focus on online learning, merit pay bonuses for teachers and rolling back most teacher collective bargaining rights.

The measures were passed after three years of unprecedented school budget cuts; Luna offered them as a way to educate more Idaho students at a higher level without spending more money. Three referendums on the November ballot, Propositions 1, 2 and 3, ask Idaho voters if they want to keep the laws or repeal them.

Luna said with technology bringing online courses and other resources to classrooms even in remote areas, “Every student has equal access and opportunity no matter where they live in Idaho, and that just didn’t exist before.” He added, “We accomplished all this without raising anyone’s taxes, at any level.”

Cronin countered, “The Luna laws were a fiscal crisis plan, not a reform plan.” He called the reforms a plan for “education on the cheap,” and “a bait-and-switch con.”

Cronin said, “Here’s the net effect of the Luna laws: We will have fewer teachers, but more laptops.” Or, he said, districts that don’t want to cut teachers will ask local voters for property tax override levies, as about 80 percent of Idaho’s school districts already have.

The two clashed repeatedly as they answered questions from the audience posed by moderator Jim Weatherby, a Boise State University emeritus professor.

Some of the questions were pointed. In response to one, Cronin defended his dual role as a state legislator and a paid consultant for the campaign against the laws. “My constituents are happy that I’m here. They’re happy that I’m standing up and fighting these laws that I have been fighting from the very beginning,” he said.

In response to another, Luna defended his relationship with the state’s teachers. “This divide is not between teachers and me,” he said. “It is between union leaders. … From the day I was elected in 2006 they began to orchestrate and organize against me … (and) feed teachers misinformation.”

Cronin countered, “Folks, the teachers union is made up of teachers.” He said two-thirds of Idaho teachers belong to the Idaho Education Association. “They feel disrespected, they feel ignored.”

Late in the forum, Luna shot at Cronin: “Any carpenter can build a barn; any jackass can kick it down.” Asked afterward what he meant by that, Luna said he was repeating a quote that he thought he’d heard attributed to Ronald Reagan; a similar comment is often attributed to former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas. “It’s not original to me,” Luna said. “We’ve waited for almost two years for the opposition that originally called themselves ‘reasonable reform’ to bring forth reasonable reform, and they’ve brought nothing. All they’ve done is attack, attack, attack.”

Luna said he had expected that by now, “Idahoans would be having a debate” between his reform plan and an alternative one from opponents.

Cronin responded, “The superintendent is building a rickety barn that is about to fall over anyway. We just need to give it a little nudge. It wasn’t a barn that was worth building anyway.”

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