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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho passes teacher merit-pay bill

Students from a government class at Eagle High School watch the House debate the teacher merit-pay bill on Wednesday. (Betsy Russell)
BOISE - The Idaho House has voted 44-26 in favor of a teacher merit-pay bill, sending the measure to the governor’s desk and giving state schools Supt. Tom Luna a second big win in his bid to push sweeping reforms for Idaho’s schools this year. The bill’s passage came a day after legislation removing most collective bargaining rights from Idaho’s teachers also cleared the House and went to the governor’s desk. Thirteen Republicans joined all 13 House Democrats in opposing the merit-pay bill, SB 1110, including some top Republicans: House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, and House Health and Welfare Chairwoman Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls. Moyle, who didn’t speak during the two-hour-plus debate on the bill, said he opposed it “because it’s not funded.” The first-year cost of the new pay-for-performance program, in 2013, would be $38 million; in each subsequent year, it would cost the state $51.3 million. “I think we’ll be back a year from now, trying to figure out why we’re lowering teacher salaries to pay for ‘pay for performance,’ and I don’t think that’s good,” Moyle said. Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s House sponsor and chairman of the House Education Committee, thanked Moyle after the debate for not speaking up. Nonini told the House, “Pay for the performance will reward excellence in the classroom.” He bristled at suggestions that the bill is an “unfunded mandate.” “This is statutory spending,” he said. “That means it gets funded automatically from monies appropriated to fund public schools.” McGeachin said the House Health and Welfare Committee, which she chairs, is struggling to make deep and difficult cuts in the Medicaid program, and this bill would spend money the state doesn’t have. She said, “I really struggle” with the idea that her committee’s work is “to enable this.” Said McGeachin, “I totally support the concept of pay for performance, and I applaud the efforts of the sponsors of the bill. I would like to be able to offer some additional opportunities for paying our teachers, but I do believe that this, in a sense, is an unfunded mandate, in that we have not identified a revenue that would be able to pay for this. And by putting it into statute, it will present for further pressure on the education budget in the future.” Democrats including Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, a retired teacher, spoke out strongly against the measure. Ringo said Idaho in the past has promised pay programs like this one - including a career-ladder program in 1980, when she was teaching, and a mentoring program - and then, despite much work on the plans, never implemented them because there was no funding. She said such plans can’t succeed without “new money and a commitment to fund it.” Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, said, “This bill has not been funded, and it’s a significant chunk of money.” To make promises to teachers of extra pay in the current tough economic times without any funding source, he said, “just seems cruel.” He said, “This is not fiscally responsible.” Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, said passing the merit pay bill without funding is “kind of like telling your kids you’re going to take a trip to Disneyland next summer, but you know you’re going to be laid off next week,” and that it would be “better to do nothing at all.” Nonini told the House, “The way we pay Idaho teachers is archaic, it fails to recognize excellence and reward the great teachers we have in Idaho classrooms today.” He said, “Idaho teachers are solely paid on how much education they have … and how many years they have in the classroom.” Under the bill, teachers could earn bonuses for teaching in hard-to-fill positions; for teaching in schools with improved student test scores; and for taking on leadership roles including mentoring new teachers. Nonini said the current pay system is based on “inputs that are irrelevant.” Luna hailed the bill’s passage Wednesday as “another monumental step toward reforming our public education system,” and said, “With this bill, Idaho now has the most comprehensive statewide pay-for-performance plan in the country. This legislation is all about recognizing and rewarding our great teachers for the outstanding work they do every day.” Most North Idaho lawmakers voted in favor of the bill; among representatives in districts 1 through 6, only three voted against it: Ringo; Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow; and Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover. The third bill in Luna’s package, to increase class sizes in grades 4-12 and eliminate 770 teaching jobs in the next two years to generate savings to be funneled into technology upgrades and performance pay, remains stalled in a Senate committee.