Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Education bills changed but opposition lingers

Concerns remain with teacher contracts, online courses

Express Staff Writer

Wood River High School senior Karlie Jeneson uses a school-owned Apple computer to complete a project in her video production class. Computers are just one piece of technology that could be implemented in more classrooms statewide if Superintendent Tom Luna’s education reform bills pass. Photo by Willy Cook

Students, teachers and the general public stormed the state Capitol last week to voice their opinions about Superintendent Tom Luna's controversial education reform plan.

The people spoke and Luna, in part, listened, modifying the plan and resubmitting it to the Senate Education Committee on Monday. However, some legislators said they felt the bills did not change enough.

"The changes are very small," said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum.

While the reforms have been divided into three bills rather than the previous two, and minor changes have been made to course requirements, distributing laptops to high schools students and shortened teacher contracts are still on the table. Spending on education would still be slashed by $134 million dollars over the next two fiscal years.

Local impacts

Locally, School District officials said the impact of lost funding on Blaine County schools would be minimal.

"It's probably not going to have much of an impact on Blaine County, but it will have an impact on the taxpayers," said Mike Chatterton, the district's business manager.

Chatterton said the district could expect to lose a little over $1.7 million in state funding if Luna's plan is passed, but it has the authority to levy taxpayers for supplemental funds.

The district cannot issue a supplemental levy without voter approval, and cannot put a levy on the ballot until 2013, but Chatterton said it could dip into reserve funds to make up the shortfall until then.

However, he said other aspects of the education reform bill, including required online courses, are worrisome for students and schools statewide.

Learning online

"Any time you take student-teacher contact away from students, you're asking for trouble," Chatterton said.

He did not testify during the hearings last week, but his opinion was shared by many who did, saying they opposed Luna's plan for requiring all high school students to take eight online courses in four years. The latest version of the bill reduces the requirement for online classes from eight to four, but many who testified said they had general objections to online learning.

Several students, including Whitney Webster of Vallivue High School in Boise, said students would not stay on task.

"If the teacher is there to help us and guide us, I think we'll stay on topic," Webster stated. "[But] we tend to veer off and get distracted by other things online."

Calls for guidance while taking online classes could result in an inability to cut teachers, and online classes are not likely to reduce staff in Blaine County.

"There's still going to have to be a proctor or something," Chatterton said. "It's not going to give secondary schools the chance to reduce staff."

New technology

The laptops or "mobile computing devices" that Luna's original bill called for distributing to ninth-grade students were another source of controversy during the hearings.

In response to public outcry regarding "giving" laptops to students, the bill has since been amended to allow public schools to develop their own policies regarding distribution, whether students are allowed to bring laptops home and how to deal with loss or theft.

But opponents said the bill needs a lot of work to make it feasible statewide.

Joanne Holtz, a language arts teacher at Vallivue Middle School, said it would be impossible for her to use technology in her classroom without extreme improvements to infrastructure.

"I have one outlet in my classroom," she said.

Shayna Burns, a student from Caldwell High School, said she supports new technology, but she doesn't see it as a priority when her calculus class only has one classroom set of textbooks that must be shared by all students taking the course.

"We would love to have laptops, but we don't have the basics," she said.

Chatterton said the Blaine County School District is already working on ways to put technology in the classroom, regardless of state mandates.

"We're probably six to nine months ahead of the state," he said. "Definitely, we're prepared."

However, he said he doesn't agree with Luna's proposed technology budget, which wouldn't purchase laptops with sufficient capability.

"[Luna] is talking about a $300 laptop," Chatterton said. "That's not going to have a lot of memory or a lot of speed."

A laptop at that price may not even have wireless capability, Chatterton said, limiting usefulness in taking online classes. Additionally, technology will not eliminate the need for teachers, as more technology requires more technological support.

Teacher concerns

Despite some modifications, the education reform bills still replace teacher tenure and seniority with one- to two-year contracts. Long-time teachers would no longer be protected from layoffs, which could occur whenever student enrollment dropped significantly.

Previously, schools did not have the flexibility to reduce staff in September if fewer students enrolled than expected. The new bills would allow schools to fire teachers in September if enrollment dropped by more than 1 percent, so long as the district provides them with 10 percent severance pay. This change is not appealing to educators.

"[The reform's] chief purpose is to attack and destroy the longstanding Idaho teacher contract law," Tryntje Van Slyke, president of the Blaine County Education Association, stated in a news release.

Rep. Jaquet said in an interview that the teachers let go would likely be new ones, which means they could be hired for a school year and fired a few months later, with $3,000 in severance pay as their only protection.

"This would have a chilling effect on teachers coming from other areas," she said.

However, Chatterton said he does't see teacher layoffs becoming a large problem in Blaine County because the county could make up for state budget cuts through a supplemental levy.

"I don't think we would probably lose any [teachers,]" he said.

What now?

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said it was hard for her to read whether the Senate Education Committee would pass the bill and send it to the House.

"Regardless of testimony, I'm not so sure the Legislature won't pass it, which saddens me," Stennett said.

The modified bills were sent to print on Monday and will be scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Education Committee. If approved, the legislation will be sent to the full Senate for a vote.

A hearing on the bills had not been scheduled as of press time.

Katherine Wutz:

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