Voting on Luna's Laws
Suddenly, Idaho is ground zero in the debate on education reform. Learn how this state’s decision in November could change the way your district operates.
In what could be the biggest test of education reform in this country, Idaho voters will face a simple question on Election Day: Do they approve of the sweeping changes to the state's schools passed by the legislature in 2011?
That answer will decide whether state superintendent of instruction Tom Luna will continue to remake everything about education in Idaho—from how classrooms look to how teachers are evaluated to the role technology should play in the schools. And the results might not stop at the state's borders, as union backers and reform enthusiasts wonder aloud if these changes-and the voters' decision-will have a national impact as more states join the debate on education reform.
"There's a great deal of concern," says Dan Domenech, AASA's executive director. "In states with Republican governors and legislatures, this is a pattern that can snowball this coming year. Who knows where this can go?"
Facing declining state revenues and a system that graduated 92 percent of high school students but sent less than half of those graduates to post-secondary education, Luna knew an overhaul was needed. Coming on the heels of anti-union legislation passed in other Republican-led states such as Wisconsin and Ohio, Luna and Governor Butch Otter, both Republicans, put together the most audacious package of reforms ever considered by a state at one time. (The superintendent of instruction is an elected position in Idaho.)
"We knew we would get just as much resistance if we did one part of this reform or if we did the whole thing," says Luna. "So we decided to do the whole thing."
The "whole thing," under an umbrella called Students Come First, includes limiting collective bargaining for teachers and other district employees to just compensation and benefits, and mandating that all negotiations take place in open sessions. It eliminated tenure for new teachers (those with tenure are grandfathered under the state's former rules). It limits teacher contracts to two years and frees districts from last-in, first-out provisions when making staff reductions. The new rules, which were passed in three separate bills, each with a series of addenda, also revamp teacher evaluations. Fifty percent of the assessments are based on student growth and achievement, and they incorporate parent input. If a district and union fail to reach a salary agreement by June 10, the district can set pay rates unilaterally; this year, 21 of the state's 130 districts did so.
But the package also includes more pay for teachers, raising the minimum salary to $30,000 and offering merit pay based on student growth and bonuses for taking hard-to-staff positions or leadership roles. It also mandates one-to-one technology—either laptops or tablets—for all high school students by 2013-14. The state will allow students to opt out of individual classes and take them online-reducing its reimbursement to the student's home district accordingly. The bill also calls for the class of 2016 to earn at least two of its 46 credits through distance learning or blended learning.
"This is the most comprehensive education reform of any state in the nation," says Ken Burgess, the campaign manager for Yes for Idaho Education, a group seeking to retain the reforms. "When Otter and Tom Luna speak around the country, people are looking at them saying, ‘How in the heck did you get this done?' They want to use it as a model for what we want to accomplish."
"It's the comprehensive approach to what we refer to as 21st-century classrooms, transparent accountability with choice," says Luna. "This pulls it all together."
Battle No. 1
Even in a state as consistently conservative as Idaho, the battle to pass these laws was hard fought. "It got pretty volatile for a while," Luna admits. "We had a governor who was willing to lead. We both agreed, Don't blink. And we didn't blink. The pressure was huge. People were visiting my mom's home. The governor was interrupted during a live TV broadcast by a protestor." Someone even slashed the tires of Luna's truck while it sat in his driveway, and painted its side with his name and a red X through it.
Brian Cronin, a Democratic state representative who voted against the plan, says that the set of reforms was put together in private, without input from the vast majority of teachers, administrators, school board trustees, and even businesspeople in the state. Cronin, who is not running for reelection, is serving as a spokesman for Vote No on Propositions 1, 2, 3, the group advocating for the recall of the new rules. He's never seen an issue generate so much response, he says, estimating that he's received several thousand e-mails, with sentiment running 10-to-1 against the laws.
At first the package "was pitched as a fiscal crisis plan," says Cronin. "Today it's being pitched as an education reform plan." Most objectionable for him is that reform proponents never explained how they would improve education. "It's a completely unproven scheme," he says. "There's no evidence that any of this works. We're taking the biggest blind leap in the country, essentially."
Battle No. 2
As soon as the laws passed, the opposition started gathering signatures to recall the laws and Luna. The Idaho Education Association, helped by a reported $75,000 from the NEA, easily gathered enough signatures to put a repeal of the laws on the ballot. Yet the group fell well short of the signatures needed to force a recall election of Luna.
Burgess predicts that even though the issue dominated state politics in 2011, most voters are a "blank slate" and will be making up their minds in the months before the election.
In a small state where spending on the last governor's race reached about $4 million, Burgess expects the money raised by pro- and anti-recall groups to be near half that amount. Recent election history suggests voters will retain the laws, although as of press time no polls on the issue had been released publicly. Idaho frequently votes Republican, and has a large number of Mormons, so the turnout for Mitt Romney in the presidential race is expected to be high. Also, in 2006, the state's voters handily rejected a school-funding measure that would have raised the sales tax 1 percent.
"When you look at the numbers, the deck is almost stacked in favor of what the state wants to do," Domenech says. Only about 20 percent of the state's residents have kids in school, and the reforms themselves are complex. "It's difficult for the public to understand. It becomes more of an emotional issue," he says. "You go with your gut."
Cronin doesn't think the issue breaks down along partisan lines, pointing to the many Republican legislators who struggled with supporting the laws last year. His pro-repeal group, which has been receiving in-state and out-of-state donations, is expected to raise more funds than the pro-Luna group.
"The laws were rammed through. There's still a lot of opposition," Cronin says. "This is definitely winnable. We've done some internal polling and the numbers are very encouraging."
Luna says two factors will work in favor of the reforms. First, with the laws having been in place for a year or more, voters will see that "it's not the end of public education like they were told it would be. Thousands of teachers haven't lost their jobs; classrooms haven't doubled in size; students are not being taught by a computer."
And second, Luna says, "Most people realize that something needed to change in public education. By the time we get to November, most people will decide that this may not be perfect, but the last thing we want to do is go back to what we had before."