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Ad slams Idaho school reform laws

BOISE – The hottest election issue of the season in Idaho – possible repeal of the state’s controversial new school reform laws – has yielded the first statewide TV campaign commercial, and it makes some questionable claims.

“Proposition 3 replaces teachers with computers by requiring that taxpayers fund laptops for high school students,” the ad says. “The Legislature failed to fully fund the laptops required by Proposition 3, so our property taxes could increase.”

Actually, one of the main things the reform laws did was write formulas into state law guaranteeing funding for the laptops into future years. The laws made the laptop program a new “statutory requirement” within Idaho’s public schools budget, just like busing, border contracts or salaries and benefits.

In addition, the original law tapped teacher salary funds to fund the laptop program in the future. A follow-up bill this year, HB 698, sponsored by House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, removed that requirement, replacing it with a new requirement that the reform programs – including the laptops – be top priority for funding within Idaho’s school budget, ahead of everything else except for growth in the student population.

“These requirements are in code to fund this program,” explained legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee, a legislative staffer who works on the state’s public school budget.

Reform opponents are standing by their claim, however. Brian Cronin, a consultant to the “Vote No on Propositions 1,2,3” campaign, said his group maintains costs have been underestimated for the laptops and their maintenance. Plus, it notes that no new funding source is being tapped for the laptops – meaning if the budget doesn’t grow, money for them would be taken away from other basic educational needs.

“It’d be one thing to say we’re going to do this program and we have this new source of revenue that pays for it all,” Cronin said. “That’s fully funding. But I just think the money’s not there.… The Legislature and JFAC (the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee) will be looking at that each year and will have to be making very hard decisions, essentially pulling money from other places to pay for this.”

Under the laws, a statewide contract would pay for both the laptops and their maintenance. Costs would ramp up from $2.5 million in the current school year, when just teachers are scheduled to get the computers, to between $16 million and $17 million a year when the program is fully phased in.

“Ironically, the fact that those laptops are funded strengthens their first argument, that laptops are replacing teachers, or funds that otherwise could be devoted to teachers,” said political scientist David Adler, director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. “In a lot of ways, it’s unfortunate, because they have some pretty good arguments on their side, but they’ve just undercut their position by misstating the issue of legislative funding.”

The other claim in the commercial, that the reform laws replace teachers with computers, is arguable. The original law specifically sought to eliminate hundreds of teaching jobs and raise class sizes in Idaho to generate savings to pay for the new reform programs, including laptops, online learning and teacher merit pay.

The final version of the law just cut the teacher salary funds and required the new programs, and let local school districts decide whether they wanted to cut teacher pay, eliminate positions, or seek local property tax hikes to make up the difference.

Nonini’s bill eliminated the required cuts to teacher pay, but $14.8 million a year already had been trimmed. Luna’s budget proposal for next year calls for reversing that cut.

The commercial began running Tuesday throughout Idaho, including in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene market.

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