Ad touting school reforms tells just part of story

FRIDAY, SEPT. 28, 2012, 4:17 P.M.

BOISE - A new television commercial touting Idaho’s controversial school reform laws makes claims that are accurate, but still mislead voters about the impact of the reform laws.

That’s because they focus on obscure points in two of the three laws, without getting into the overall thrust of the measures.

“It’s not inaccurate, but it’s not focused on the real meat and potatoes of the three propositions that have generated so much controversy,” said David Adler, a political scientist and director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. “This is a classic campaign approach where you honeycomb your message with sweets that will appeal to everybody, without having to rehash the controversial measures.”

The new commercial, which began running statewide this week, including in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene market, claims that education reform is “as simple as 1-2-3,” and then recites three points: That Proposition 1 will provide parent input into teacher evaluations; that Proposition 2 will “reward our best teachers by paying them more;” and that Proposition 3 will “allow high school students to earn up to one year’s college credit.”

While merit-pay bonuses are, in fact, the topic of Proposition 2, the ad avoids mention of the main effects of Propositions 1 and 3. Proposition 1 is the teacher contract law that rolled back most collective bargaining rights for teachers, making all contract terms expire each year, making teacher layoffs easier, prohibiting seniority from being considered in layoffs, and eliminating various job protections for Idaho teachers.

The law also included a requirement for parent input into evaluations, but that’s a tiny piece of it.

The three referenda measures ask Idaho voters if they want to keep the three “Students Come First” reform laws, by voting yes, or repeal them, by voting no.

John Foster, a lobbyist and political consultant behind a new PAC called “Parents for Education Reform” that’s sponsoring the ad, said, “It’s a 30-second ad, so obviously we don’t have time to talk about everything that is in the proposals. But our group has selected some of the things that we think are very important and that we want parents to know are in the propositions, so that they know all the benefits that their schools, their teachers, their students can receive when they go to the polls and vote yes.”

Foster’s group selected an even smaller piece of Proposition 3 to focus on.

While that law does include a new program to pay for dual-credit courses for high school students who have completed all their graduation requirements before their senior year, the vast majority of that large and complicated law focuses on technology.

It’s the law that funds a laptop computer for every Idaho high school student and teacher and requires a new focus on technology and online learning. It rewrites Idaho’s school funding formula to redirect a portion of existing state funding for schools to online course providers.

“The real essence there is technology,” Adler said. “There’s still considerable controversy surrounding the question of the desirability of online courses.”

Proposition 3 required the state Board of Education to determine the number of online classes to be required for high school graduation in Idaho; in response, the board set that figure at two online classes.

Foster said he thinks his group’s ad is an accurate presentation of what the laws would do, even though it leaves out the gist of two of the three of them. “This organization’s goals are to talk about the parts of the reform that we strongly support,” he said. “We think some of the things in there that have been overlooked in the larger political debate are really important to parents and important to students, and they need to be highlighted.”

There is some question about the ad’s claim that the new merit-pay bonus system in Proposition 2 will “reward our best teacher by paying them more.” The law offers bonuses to groups of teachers - those who teach in a school where student test scores rise, for example - not to individual teachers. Foster said he thinks that still effectively rewards the best teachers.

Though the reform laws were pushed in the Legislature only by Republicans - not a single Democrat voted for any of the three in either house, and Republicans were divided, with between 17 and 23 opposing each bill - Foster said he believes the issue is a bipartisan one. He’s a former executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party.

However, he declined to name any other Democrats involved in the new campaign PAC. The PAC’s chairwoman is Debbie Field, GOP Gov. Butch Otter’s campaign manager; its treasurer is Cordell Chigbrow, Otter’s campaign treasurer.

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