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Fiery debate focuses on Idaho school reforms

Tom Luna, Idaho state superintendent of schools, answers questions Tuesday after a debate over Luna's school reform laws, which are the topic of three election referenda (Betsy Russell)
Tom Luna, Idaho state superintendent of schools, answers questions Tuesday after a debate over Luna's school reform laws, which are the topic of three election referenda (Betsy Russell)
BOISE - In a fiery debate Tuesday before a sellout crowd of 450, Idaho state schools chief Tom Luna defended his controversial “Students Come First” school reform laws, while critic Brian Cronin charged they’re not reforms at all, but ways to justify underfunding Idaho schools. Luna dismissed that as a personal attack, and said his plan, which includes technology boosts, laptop computers for all high school students, a new focus on online learning, merit pay bonuses for teachers and rolling back most collective bargaining rights, will help Idaho students succeed in high school and beyond. With technology bringing online courses and other resources to classrooms even in remote areas, Luna said, “Every student has equal access and opportunity no matter where they live in Idaho, and that just didn’t exist before.” He added, “We accomplished all this without raising anyone’s taxes, at any level.” Cronin countered, “The Luna laws were a fiscal crisis plan, not a reform plan.” He called the reforms a plan for “education on the cheap,” and “a bait-and-switch con.” The reforms were approved by state lawmakers in 2011 at Luna’s urging; after three years of unprecedented school budget cuts, he said they offered a way to educate more Idaho students at a higher level without spending more money. Three referenda on the November ballot, Propositions 1, 2 and 3, ask Idaho voters if they want to keep the laws or repeal them. Said Cronin, “Here’s the net effect of the Luna laws: We will have fewer teachers, but more laptops.” Or, he said, districts that don’t want to cut teachers will ask local voters for property tax override levies, as close to 80 percent of Idaho’s school districts already have. Cronin called those locally approved new property tax levies a “tax increase, just since the Luna laws were rolled out.” He said Idaho’s electorate has been “voting with their feet and voting with their wallets” to say they want schools better funded. The two clashed repeatedly as they answered questions from the audience at the City Club of Boise forum, posed by moderator Jim Weatherby, a Boise State University emeritus professor. After the debate, Cronin accused Luna of grabbing his arm after his opening remarks and berating him. “He grabbed my arm rather forcefully and got in my face and said, ‘That’s the biggest bullshit I’ve ever heard,’” Cronin said. “I looked at the people at the lead table and I think they saw that I was visibly alarmed, shaken, but that’s what he said. He grabbed my arm hard enough such that I spilled my water. … When he tried to touch me again, I told him not to touch me.” Luna’s spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, said, “He never used that language. That’s completely inaccurate.” The exchange wasn’t picked up on the event’s microphones, and Luna denied afterward that he’d become angry with Cronin at any point during the forum. “I think we both were passionate,” he said. Luna said, “I was surprised he would use his 12 minutes of comments for personal attacks against me rather than talking about what is in the laws. After his remarks, I leaned over to him and said something to that effect.” Some of the questions from the audience were pointed. In response to one, Cronin defended his dual role as a state legislator and a paid consultant for the campaign against the laws. “My constituents are happy that I’m here. They’re happy that I’m standing up and fighting these laws that I have been fighting from the very beginning,” he said. In response to another, Luna defended his relationship with the state’s teachers. “This divide is not between teachers and me,” he said. “It is between union leaders. … They spent $185,000 to unseat me, this is the union leaders. They have never dealt with me in good faith. From the day I was elected in 2006 they began to orchestrate and organize against me … (and) feed teachers misinformation.” Said Luna, “There is not a level of distrust between teachers and myself - it’s the teachers union that has fostered this.” Cronin countered, “Folks, the teachers union is made up of teachers.” He said two-thirds of Idaho teachers belong to the teachers union. “They feel disrespected, they feel ignored.” Late in the forum, Luna, shortly before he was cut off by the timer, shot at Cronin: “Any carpenter can build a barn, any jackass can kick it down.” Asked afterward what he meant by that, Luna said he was repeating a quote that he thought he’d heard attributed to Ronald Reagan; a similar comment is often attributed to Texas Congressman Sam Rayburn. “It’s not original to me,” Luna said. “We’ve waited for almost two years for the opposition that originally called themselves ‘reasonable reform’ to bring forth reasonable reform, and they’ve brought nothing. All they’ve done is attack, attack, attack.” Luna said he had expected that by now, “Idahoans would be having a debate” between his reform plan and an alternative one from opponents. Cronin responded, “The superintendent is building a rickety barn that is about to fall over anyway. We just need to give it a little nudge. It wasn’t a barn that was worth building anyway.”
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