The Idaho Senate approved two of the three parts of state schools superintendent Tom Luna’s reforms for public schools. Both plans, S 1108 and S1110, now head to a House committee, where they will be heard next week. The third part of Luna’s reforms faces potential fixes in a Senate committee next week.
“This is a very, very important step,” Luna said. “It shows the Legislature is committed to reforming education.” The two pieces of legislation both passed on 20-15 votes, which Luna said he was happy with. “Some people were predicting these things were dead on arrival, so we’re very pleased (with the vote). That’s very strong support for reforming education and I think you’ll continue to see that support as we move forward.”
The reform proposals spurred several hours of debate on the Senate floor, following days of multi-hour hearings in a Senate committee. Opponents to the plans were more talkative on the Senate floor.
“This is a direct slap in the face to every teacher in our classrooms who make our children want to learn,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, one of several Republicans to oppose the plan. She spoke on the Senate floor specifically about legislation that would limit contract negotiations between teachers’ unions and school districts and eliminate continuing contracts for teachers.
“This bill is going to hit at the heart of every teacher,” said Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello. All seven Democrats on the committee voted against both measures. “This bill will rattle their spirit.”
Much of the debate over the plan affecting labor negotiations stemmed from how it would affect not just teachers, but also local school districts. Proponents like Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said putting limits on teacher contracts and bargaining power would help school board members make decisions. He said the balance of power has tipped too far toward teachers during the past 30 years.
Not all senators agreed with Goedde. “It is difficult enough with the financial considerations we are facing to turn upside down teacher contract law,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who opposed the plan.
Money was also key to the debate in the other part of Luna’s reform plan that passed the Senate. It would set up a pay for performance system, which would start giving educators shares of $38 million in state funding for merit pay bonuses. Teachers could get bonuses for students’ academic achievement, taking on leadership roles, or taking hard-to-fill teaching jobs.
Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said that while Idaho has great teachers, it also has greater teachers who deserve more than a pat on the back for their extra effort. “The system we have right now (for paying teachers) is as unfair as any system I can think of,” Hill said. “This may not be the best way, but it’s definitely a better way.”
Critics of the plan questioned where the money would come from for the bonuses for teachers. “There is no funding in this bill,” said Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow.
The pay for performance plan wouldn’t start until the start of fall classes in 2012, so lawmakers don’t have to budget for the $38 million program this year. Luna would pay for the program with the third and final piece of legislation in his overhaul plan, which would increase class sizes, require high school students to take online classes, and provide high school students with laptops or other portable computers.
A pay for performance plan for teachers failed in the Senate in 2008. Luna said that time and the apparent need for fiscal reform may have led senators to approve the plan now. Luna also said that the plan isn’t mean-spirited or an attack on teachers. He said that state budget decisions last year, lowering salaries and money for classroom supplies, also harmed teachers.
“That’s not very inspiring,” Luna said. “That’s not an attaboy.”
Both plans were read almost in their entirety on the Senate floor, a process that added more than an hour to the debate. Normally, legislation is read just by its number and title, but Malepeai objected to skipping over all the text of the two plans. He said the changes in education were too important to grind out and that reading the legislation line by line led lawmakers to listen and think about the plans, which spurred debate.