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Thursday, October 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Idaho’s ed chief pares teacher merit pay plan

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna trimmed back his teacher merit pay proposal Thursday, but legislative budget writers made it clear he hadn’t trimmed enough.

Luna’s move came as he pitched a $1.5 billion budget for Idaho’s public schools for next year, with much of the increase going to his teacher pay plan and to handle increased numbers of students. Luna is asking for a 7.9 percent hike in school funding from state general tax funds, while Gov. Butch Otter recommended a 5.3 percent increase.

Luna had sought $60 million next year for his controversial “iSTARS” plan, which would reward teachers who give up their continuing contract rights, sometimes called tenure; whose schools score well on the Idaho Standards Achievement Test; and who take on leadership roles or teach high-demand or multiple subjects. But on Thursday, he dropped that to $46 million.

Otter recommended enough to give average 5 percent raises to all teachers – but that’s only $34 million.

Luna said he’d make up some of the difference by giving school administrators 1 percent raises and classified employees, such as school custodians, 3 percent.

But Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “I don’t think we want to implement a teacher pay system on the backs of the classified personnel. We have to be honest with the dollars.” He added that in his view, the governor’s budget figure is the most the state could allocate.

Luna trimmed his program by cutting bonuses teachers would get for meeting the various criteria from $2,400 to $2,200, and by revising his estimate of how many of Idaho’s teachers would participate from 30 to 40 percent in the first year, to 20 to 25 percent.

Budget writers were unconvinced. State Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said if Idaho enacts the plan, it’s likely more teachers will want to sign up for its big raises and bonuses.

“Whatever we do, we have to be ready to fund this,” Wood told Luna. “It’s going to be 40 to 50 percent of the teachers sign up for it first year, and by the third year it’s going to be 90 percent. … At 100 percent buildout, what will be the total cost of iSTARS? This committee is going to have to come up with money to fund this. … This could break the state if the economy turns down.”

Luna said with full participation, the plan would cost $100 million a year as originally designed.

With the lower bonuses and raises he set Thursday, it’d be about $90 million a year, he said.

Luna said that’s about what the state would be spending in four years if it gave teachers 3 percent raises each year between now and then. Cameron asked Luna to provide the committee with written cost projections that go into future years.

“It actually might cost $240 million,” Cameron said.

He noted, “Across the nation, the big complaints we hear about merit pay or pay for performance is that they’re underfunded.”

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, questioned why Luna included the controversial contract change in his plan.

“I’ve been having a lot of trouble trying to figure out what the contract status of an individual has to do with their competence and performance as a teacher. … Why insert a piece into a performance program that has nothing to do with performance?”

Luna said much of his proposal isn’t about performance, and pointed to rewards for teaching in high-demand subject areas.

He said some lawmakers wouldn’t support the pay plan unless it included the contract provision.

“This is a plan to increase teacher pay in a significant way, and I think this is the plan that can accomplish that,” he said.

Other features of Luna’s proposed budget include:

•Continuation of his initiative this year to give each school teacher $350 to purchase classroom supplies and to send school districts additional funds to replace textbooks and help students who struggle on the ISAT test.

•A new $4 million data system to link together school districts’ student information systems, to track everything from course work to test scores.

•A $4 million math initiative, targeted at improving math performance from kindergarten through 12th grade. However, Otter didn’t recommend funding.

•Luna also asked for $3.5 million to pay for every high school student who’s passed the ISAT to take six college credits junior year and six more senior year. Otter also left that item out of his budget recommendation.

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