BOISE – In a rare moment of bipartisanship on school reform in Idaho, Democratic state lawmakers unveiled four far-reaching bills Wednesday, and GOP state schools Superintendent Tom Luna endorsed them.
“This isn’t a partisan issue,” said Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise. “We all know that we need to work together. The public expects us to work together.”
Within hours, GOP Gov. Butch Otter and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, also had encouraging words about the bills, which would enact the 20 recommendations from a task force that Otter appointed to chart the future of education reform in Idaho. Those items range from restoring $82 million a year in operational funds cut from the schools in recent years to new ways to determine when students should advance to the next grade.
Luna said, “This is a huge step forward, as it creates the bipartisan support for education reform that we’ve wanted, but it’s been elusive.”
Luna’s Students Come First school reform laws, which included rolling back teachers’ collective bargaining rights and a new focus on online learning, passed the Legislature without a single Democratic vote. Voters resoundingly rejected the laws in the 2012 election.
Otter, who had backed the rejected laws, then appointed a 31-member task force drawing from all sides in the education reform debate, and it proposed the 20 recommendations, which backers call a strategic plan for the future of education in Idaho. Among them are a teacher career ladder that would bring big pay increases along with a new tiered licensing program, and stepping up classroom technology, teacher mentoring and training, and advanced opportunities for students.
Idaho’s school funding per student ranks next to last in the nation and has for the past three years.
The price tag for the full reform plan is estimated at $350 million a year, but Otter said Wednesday he plans to propose phasing the reforms in over five years. “I’m going to be as aggressive as I can, but it’s going to take five years, I believe,” he said.
The four bills address all 20 recommendations except the one endorsing the Idaho Core Standards, the state’s version of Common Core standards for student achievement. That was left out because the Legislature already approved that in 2011.