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Luna: Idaho schools face ‘stark reality’: Kids meet standards, but they’re too low

Thu., Sept. 12, 2013, 8:28 a.m.

BOISE – Idaho’s education system faces a “stark reality,” state schools Superintendent Tom Luna told a special legislative committee this morning: “Kids are meeting our standards, but they aren’t the right standards any more.”

The state has a “very high graduation rate, one of the highest in the country,” Luna said, but one of the lowest percentages of students that go on to further education after high school. “And then we see that of those that do go on, almost half of them have to take remedial courses,” he said. “Thirty-eight percent of them do not go on to their second year.”

As a result, fewer than 40 percent of Idaho adults have some sort of degree or certificate beyond high school. “That’s in a world where 60 percent of jobs require some form of post-secondary degree or certificate.”

Luna said, “That’s why Idaho is moving forward with higher academic standards for all students … this school year.” He called the move to the new Idaho Core Standards “a necessary and critical change in Idaho’s education system.”

Those new standards, which have been in the works for several years but have generated controversy this year, are a key point in the $350 million school reform plan recommended by a 31-member task force appointed by Gov. Butch Otter; the recommendations also include restoring $82.5 million cut from the state’s school budget in recent years’ budget cuts, boosting Idaho teacher pay through a new “career ladder” program, a new system to advance students to the next grade only when they’ve mastered the material, changes in professional licensing and teacher training, and more.

The governor’s task force sent Otter its final report last week; now, a joint committee of House and Senate members is beginning its work, looking both at the task force recommendations and other issues.

“We’ve got a huge task ahead of us,” Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, declared as he convened the first meeting of the panel this morning in the Idaho State Capitol; it’s being streamed live online. “Our challenge, as I see it, is taking all these recommendations into consideration and moving forward. An interim committee report or a task force report that sits on a shelf someplace is worth nothing, so the challenge is implementation.”

The legislative panel is expected to consider teacher contract issues from which the governor’s task force steered clear, including several bills that passed this year to temporarily revive portions of the voter-rejected “Students Come First” school reform laws, which included rolling back teachers’ collective bargaining rights.

House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, who is co-chairing the legislative panel with Goedde, said the committee will “look back at some of the things we have done, recently done, and make sure they are working the way they are intended. We know the old phrase, if you fail to learn, then you’re doomed to repeat, something along those lines. So it is important that we learn.”

DeMordaunt said, “Now I don’t see this committee crafting legislation, but I hope this is an opportunity for us to spawn some ideas that we potentially will see in legislation.”

During its all-day meeting today, the panel invited representatives of the state’s school boards association, school administrators association and teachers union to share what they see as the most pressing challenges and needs. All said funding, in the wake of steep budget cuts since 2009. The state budget now allocates only $20,000 per classroom for operational costs; in 2009, it was $25,696; schools have lost $82.5 million a year in state funding.

Rob Winslow, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, said districts have had to make “a lot of significant cuts,” including cutting days from the school year and trimming teacher numbers. “Class sizes that used to be, 30 would seem high – now we’re seeing it’s not that uncommon to start seeing class sizes in the 40s, which is a big problem,” he said. “Our No. 1 area that we really would like to see addressed is that restoration of operational funding.”

Jessica Harrison of the Idaho School Boards Association agreed. Costs are rising even as funding has dropped, she said. “All districts are facing the challenge of the increasing cost of mandatory expenditures,” from insurance to utilities to school supplies. “There is only so far it can go.”

Penni Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association, noted the increase in successful local property tax override votes for school funding. “Idaho citizens want great public schools, and if the Legislature is unable to put money into their local schools, the electorate will either vote taxes upon themselves … or the system will suffer, and parents, students and educators will flee for better, more supportive systems.” She said many Idaho teachers continue to leave the profession. “It’s frustrating to me that once again I have to report to you that the departures continue at historic levels.”


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