The Idaho Senate approved the third and final piece of state schools superintendent Tom Luna’s education overhaul, after hours of debate that included criticism from many Democrats and Republicans. The final vote was 20-15, which was the same tally as the first planks of Luna’s, though there was a shift of support among several Republicans.
Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who sponsored the legislation, said the reform effort is needed given the drop in school funding. “If we want education to improve, we have to be willing to do things differently,” Goedde said. “If we only cut more and hope our students do well, we have failed them. Hope is not strategy, action is.”
The legislation is a policy plan, but it affects funding for public schools. It would target $13 million a year for classroom technology and training for teachers and roll out a program to give all high school students laptops or similar computing devices by the fall of 2015. That spending would be paid for by salary reductions in state funding for teachers and other school staff that would be set for the next five years.
The bill also would give school districts more flexibility to reduce staff by easing the “use it or lose it” provision that requires districts to hire a certain number of teachers to get all its state funding. It would also create a 27-member task force to study online classes for high school students and other technology issues.
Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, was the most prominent lawmakers to switch sides, opposing the legislation after backing the first two parts of Luna’s plan. Davis said there’s a lot to like, but opposed funding the reforms by reducing the pool of money for educators’ salaries. He said lawmakers should find other sources of money than salaries to fund the proposed new programs.
The salary-based apportionment for staff would go down by an increasing percentage over the next few years. Goedde said that’s necessary to make sure there’s funding for technology, though lawmakers would get to write a new budget for public schools every year.
“We’re committing a very fundamental part of our funding for this plan, and it needs to be a part of our policy,” Goedde said.
Some of the most pointed criticism came from Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who is one of the leaders of legislative budget writers. Cameron listed nine reasons why he opposed the plan, including provisions that could tie the hands of lawmakers writing the budget and creating new entitlements that would obligate state money to high school students.
“I believe this is the wrong product, the wrong approach,” Cameron said. “It’s wrong for Idaho and it’s wrong for the taxpayer. It’s wrong for education and, most importantly, it’s wrong for our children.”
Cameron also said the legislation could lead to consolidation of school districts, saying it’s not part of the bill but it is part of the plan. Luna’s spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, said the superintendent has made it clear for months that consolidating districts isn’t part of the legislative package.
The bill, Senate Bill 1184, replaces an earlier version of the plan, Senate Bill 1113. Supporters say the new version includes changes suggested by critics, scrapping a requirement to take online classes and a provision that would raise class sizes and eliminate teaching jobs. Lawmakers opposing the plan say those ideas could still come to pass.
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, alleged that those who challenged the basic concepts of the reform package weren’t invited back to discuss altering the legislation. Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, rejected Keough’s claim. He voted against the first two parts of Luna’s reforms, but, after discussions, ended up supporting the plan.
All seven Senate Democrats opposed the plan. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said the reduction in salaries would be used to pay for merit pay bonuses for educators in another part of Luna’s reform plan, which didn’t make sense. LeFavour also wrote on her blog that she plans to collect signatures to repeal the legislation, if they become law.
In addition to the teaching bonuses, Luna’s Students Come First plan also changes labor relations between teachers’ unions and districts, reducing unions’ bargaining powers.
Senate Bill 1184 now heads to the House for consideration. Now that it has passed the Senate, Cameron and other budget writers can set spending for public schools, which makes up more than half of the state’s general fund budget. Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who co-chairs the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee with Cameron, said the committee is planning to meet on Monday, March 28.