BOISE - The latest campaign commercial opposing Idaho’s school reform ballot measures draws on a variety of criticisms of the measures to suggest they hamper teachers in doing their jobs.
“We want to give your children the best education - but the Luna laws make that harder,” says the ad, which is airing statewide, including in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene market.
Teachers have been vocal opponents of the laws since they were first debated in 2011. Last week, the National Education Association donated another $740,000 to the campaign against the measures; it had earlier contributed $1.06 million. The Idaho Education Association, the state’s teachers union, also made another $7,000-plus in in-kind contributions to the campaign.
The ad cites an array of criticisms of the measures, some directly related to the propositions and others more general, from school funding issues to parent fees.
“You have significant number of undecided, and I expect to some extent, bewildered voters who are trying to sort all of this out,” said Jim Weatherby, emeritus professor at Boise State University. “I think some bewildered voters vote no or don’t vote at all. I’m not suggesting that is their intent, but I think it could be an unintended consequence.”
One claim in the commercial is that the measures “put even more emphasis on teaching to the test.”
While that’s been a controversial concept in Idaho for a decade as it, like all states, moved toward more emphasis on high-stakes testing, the measures include Proposition 2, which sets up a new teacher merit-pay bonus program tied in part to improvement in student test scores on the Idaho Standards Achievement Test.
“Does the average citizen watching this commercial understand the implications of why teaching to the test is an issue?” Weatherby asked. “That’s the difficulty in trying, in one commercial, to address all of these propositions.”
The ad also faults the measures for requiring “that taxpayers fund expensive laptops for students.”
Proposition 3 specifically requires the state to pay for laptop computers for every high school student and teacher. Last week, the state signed a $180 million, eight-year contract with Hewlett-Packard Co. to supply the laptops. The price tag is well above state schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s original estimates, which suggested that five years of providing laptops would cost $60 million, or $70 million including the cost of also setting up wireless networks, which was included in the contract.
If voters turn thumbs down on Proposition 3 next week, the $180 million contract would be canceled.
Two other charges in the ad, that Idaho has been “underfunding our schools” and that Idaho parents are paying fees for “art, sports, even kindergarten,” both are well-grounded claims, but do not appear to be directly linked to the ballot propositions.
Idaho’s school spending per pupil ranked 50th in the nation this year for a second straight year, according to the U.S. Census, and its spending per $1,000 in per-capita income is now 38th, down from 17th in 2001.
A study released last month by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that Idaho’s school funding per student took the fourth-biggest drop in the nation from 2008 to 2012, falling 19 percent. The state Department of Education disputed the study, saying its own figures showed Idaho’s per-pupil spending fell 12 percent from 2008 to 2011.
Either way, school funding in Idaho is down significantly. Former longtime chief state economist Mike Ferguson released a report in April showing that the share of Idaho’s personal income that goes to schools dropped 23 percent from 2000 to the 2013 budget. The drop in state funding has prompted most Idaho school districts to seek local property tax overrides to make up part of the loss.
The fee issue was highlighted in a class-action lawsuit filed Oct. 1 by Russ Joki, an Idaho grandfather and former Nampa school district superintendent, charging that Idaho’s cash-strapped schools are violating the state Constitution by charging parents fees for everything from kindergarten to high school science labs. The lawsuit, which is pending in 4th District Court in Ada County, estimated that parents are paying more than $2 million a year in such fees.
The propositions ask voters whether they want to keep three school reform laws that lawmakers enacted in 2011 at the behest of state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, who dubbed them his “Students Come First” program. Luna said then that several years of budget cuts had convinced him the state needed to spend the money it had left for schools differently.
The laws roll back teachers’ collective bargaining rights; impose the new merit-pay bonus system; and shift funding priorities within the existing school budget to big technology boosts, including laptop computers for students and a new focus on online learning.