Friday, March 25, 2011

Senate debates last education reform

Opposition to bill remains strong


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

The Idaho Senate debated the third part of state schools Superintendent Tom Luna's education reform package yesterday afternoon, after the bill flew through committee on Tuesday despite strenuous objection from stakeholders and educators.

"This legislation trades teachers for technology," said Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association during a committee hearing Tuesday. "The gimmicks in the Luna plan are better hidden now, but they're still there."

The original bill, Senate Bill 113, would have cut teaching positions, increased class sizes, required high school students to pass four online courses before graduation and provided funding for technology in state classrooms. The savings in the bill would also have funded the pay-for-performance system signed into law by Gov. Butch Otter last week.

The new bill does not explicitly eliminate teaching positions, nor does it require online courses for Idaho high school students. What it does is cut state funding for teacher salaries, leaving it up to the districts to decide how to spend the diminished amounts.

"[It's] somewhat akin to the notion of telling someone that they are about to lose an appendage and then giving them the choice of whether it will be an arm or a leg," wrote Linda Clark, superintendent of Meridian-based Joint District 2, in a letter to the Senate Education Committee.

Wood said during her Tuesday testimony that the Luna bill essentially causes what it purports to prevent.

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"Backers of this bill say that without it, we'll see more furlough days, pay cuts and perhaps even layoffs," she said. "It's clear that [this bill] means the very same thing."

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said she found it ironic that the bill cut teachers' salaries in order to pay for a teacher merit pay system.

"We're doing performance-based pay on the backs of teacher salaries," she said. "That seems strange to me."

Jaquet said there is some additional money in the state general fund to help public schools, a possible $16 million to $20 million that is picked up in part by hiring auditors to collect unpaid back taxes.

Still, Jaquet said one of her main concerns with the reform package is that it balances the budget over five years by funding seven county school districts as if they were consolidated. The counties include Lincoln and Gooding, two districts Jaquet represents. She said that neither she nor the representatives from the other counties had been consulted on the issue of consolidated funding.

"We've had no conversation with [Luna] about that, and he hasn't talked to those superintendents or the school boards," Jaquet said. "Lincoln and Gooding must be saying, 'Huh? We're supposed to consolidate?'"

Funding the districts as though they were consolidated would save the state roughly $10.7 million, according to Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath. McGrath said that without the reform bills, the department would face a $62 million budget shortfall.

Supporters of the proposed bill have contended that it would increase local control over schools. However, Jaquet disputed that.

"It would if there was some money there, but there's not," she said, adding that she is still convinced the motivation for Luna's plan is political rather than reality-based.

"First he says everything is copacetic, then he gets elected and he says everything is in the toilet," she said. "He seems to still be in campaign mode."

Results of the Senate hearing were not available as of press time Thursday. For an update on the status of the bill, see the Mountain Express website.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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