Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Legislators question school overhaul

Superintendent: Changes save state funds


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Tom Luna Donna Pence

Idaho schools Superintendent Tom Luna said last week that he could save the state close to $760,000 in 2012 by revamping the state school system. But District 25 legislators aren't buying it.

"We all need more details," wrote Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, in a statement released last week.

Pence, a former teacher, said she applauded the superintendent's plan to increase technology in the classroom, but worried about the elimination of "hundreds" of teachers in order to fund it.

The plan calls for state purchase of laptops for every ninth-grade student and requiring all high school students to take two online courses per year by 2015.

The plan would be funded by increasing student teacher-ratios in grades four through 12, a measure estimated to save a total of $100 million. By 2013, teachers will be responsible for an average of 20 students each, up from 18.

This class size increase would cause the elimination of 700 teaching jobs, though Luna said this would be accomplished by attrition, not layoffs.

"When people realize that we have 1,600 teachers leave the system each year, they realize it's not taking a toll on the economy," Luna said.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Idaho is already far above the national average of 15.3 students per teacher. Luna said he hoped to compensate for larger class sizes by the concentration on technology.

Luna said during a Joint Finance Appropriations Committee meeting Tuesday that slightly increasing class sizes and investing more in technology is a model other countries such as Korea and China follow.

"They tend to have larger class sizes, and they spend less than we do per child, but they're able to get more," he said.

Luna's plan also calls for an implementation of a merit-based pay system for teachers.

While the minimum salary for new teachers would be raised to $30,000 per year, all tenure and seniority rights would be replaced with pay-for-performance bonuses based on schoolwide student achievement.

State Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said she didn't think the state budget's limited funding would allow for such a system.

"I don't know how he's going to put together a merit pay program," Jaquet said.

She added that as the 0.2 percent increase in the state's education budget is not enough to compensate for the growth the system will experience, the budget is likely to come up short.

Pence questioned Luna's attitude toward student performance in his presentation to the Joint House and Senate Education Committees last week.

"I found it strange that Superintendent Luna started his presentation talking about how well students have been doing ... [then] said the system is so flawed that a complete makeover is the only way to carry on this success," Pence stated in a news release.

According to Luna, overhauling state schools is the only financially and academically viable option.

"What is the alternative?" he asked during the committee hearing Tuesday morning. "We cannot continue to cut the system any further."

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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