The Idaho Legislature began slashing education funding in 2009, but it did set aside money to establish the Idaho Education Network, a plan to link all high schools to broadband Internet services. Now that the state has pulled the plug and the $60 million contract has been terminated, lawmakers should ponder this question: What if they had just sent state dollars to local school districts instead?
The broadband plan was followed by a push to put computers ahead of teachers as part of the so-called Luna Laws, proposed by then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. Rather than bolster lagging teacher salaries, the state began pouring money into technology. Lawmakers saw it as a silver bullet that would slay the problem of a chronically underfunded education system. One bill, which was eventually scaled back, would have purchased laptop computers for all ninth-graders, while cutting 770 teaching positions and increasing class sizes.
Ultimately, voters fought back and rescinded the Luna Laws, including a proposition that would have supplied laptops to all high school students and teachers, and required students to take two online classes.
However, the Idaho Education Network lived on, though it remained a source of continual embarrassment. A judge ruled that bidding for the initial contract violated procurement laws, because it improperly cut out Syringa Networks, an Idaho company. The contract went to Education Networks of America, a Tennessee company, and Qwest Communications (now CenturyLink).
While this dispute was mired in litigation, Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna, Tom Luna’s sister, extended the contract without telling lawmakers. Never mind that wary federal officials had cut off funding that was to pay two-thirds the cost of the service.
The Legislature is now scrambling to get that funding back by moving the broadband program from the tainted Department of Administration to the Department of Education. Whether federal officials are persuaded by this maneuver remains to be seen, but we’re concerned that lawmakers will continue to pursue technology as a cheap substitute teacher.
Distance learning has its place, especially in a state with remote school districts that struggle to attract qualified teachers. But it should complement a teacher-focused system, not undermine it.
Idaho teachers have good reason to feel undervalued. Their relatively low pay and benefits make them targets for out-of state headhunters. And, as they know, the Legislature has yet to restore education funding to 2009 levels.
The state’s leaders placed their bets on technology, and all they got was scandal. They should loosen their grip, send money to local school districts and let them decide how to spend it. Not only would this honor the conservative principle of local control, it would demonstrate that a lesson has been learned.
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