Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Education reform nears finish

Package’s missing piece clears House committee


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Changes to education in Idaho public education got closer yesterday as a state House committee passed the third and final component of schools Superintendent Tom Luna's Students Come First reform package.

The vote followed four hours of debate and stakeholder testimony, much of which focused on the bill's technology and teacher salary provisions.

The purpose of the bill, Luna said, is to stabilize the public education budget in the "new normal economy," in which less state funding is available for programs across the board.

"We cannot continue to cut more and hope for better days," he said during the hearing on Tuesday. "We have to create better days."

Luna and other supporters of the bill say it would make classrooms more efficient while addressing the problem of a potential $13 million shortfall in the education budget by fiscal 2013. Luna said much of the efficiency would come through the laptops and other technology to be implemented in Idaho classrooms, including the laptops given to every high school student by 2015.

"When we have this 1-to-1 ratio, then this device becomes the textbook for every class," Luna said. "It becomes the calculator. It becomes the word processor. This is a more efficient way of using our dollars."

Luna said the laptops may eliminate the need for physical textbooks, especially in high school English classes, as many reading-list classics are available for free online.

Most of the opposition to the bill also focuses on the technology, which detractors argue is bought at the expense of overall funding cuts for teacher salaries. Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, repeated the concerns she voiced in a Senate Education Committee hearing last week.

"This bill trades teachers for technology," she said, adding that laptops cannot replace "caring, competent" adults in the classroom.

Wood also argued that the bill, which cuts funding for teacher salaries, is causing the state to lose quality teachers to other states such as Wyoming, Washington and Oregon.

"I already know of teachers who are applying elsewhere who are employed here today," she told the committee.

Luna argued that funding for teacher salaries was cut in response to stakeholder input. Educators and others in the field had argued against larger class sizes in the first version of the bill, he said, and cutting salary funding without mandating an increase in class sizes would give districts more choice in deciding how to deal with the cut.

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Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, argued that districts don't have much choice at all, as there are few places where districts can economize apart from cutting teachers.

"I don't think they're going to be cutting the cocktails and hors d'oeuvres fund—I don't think that exists—so where will the cuts come from?" he asked. "Where else do schools go?"

Karen Echeverria, executive director for the Idaho School Boards Association, said there were few real options available apart from eliminating teacher positions.

"That's where most of the cuts are going to be made," she said.

Senate Bill 1184 will now be sent to the full House for possible approval.

The bill, if passed, would delineate line items and lay out funding schemes for increased technology and an increase in salaries for new teachers. However, the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee would still be responsible for setting the actual budget for public schools.

The committee set the 2012 school budget on Monday, reducing funding by $47 million, part of which comes from a $14.8 million reduction in teacher salaries to cover technology investments as recommended by Luna's plan.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, a member of the committee, said it set the budget for 2012 assuming the bill would pass.

"It passed the Senate, so it's pretty obvious it's going to pass the House," she said.

Jaquet said that if the third bill doesn't pass, it could delay the process but not significantly.

Funding concerns are not yet resolved for Blaine County schools, which stand to lose $29.5 million if a bill eliminating a permanent levy that provides the district 60 percent of its general fund is passed this year.

Currently, the district collects 60 percent of its general operating budget through the levy on county property taxes. If the legislation recommended by the House passes the Senate and is signed into law, it would require the district to ask for voter approval for the levy every two years, as it does for its supplemental levies.

The bill was passed by the House on March 7 and passed to the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee almost three weeks ago. Jaquet said the committee was waiting for several Urban Renewal District bills to clear before dealing with the levy. One of those bills was passed by the Senate on Tuesday.

Committee Secretary Twyla Melton said Monday that she wasn't sure if the levy bill would be scheduled for a hearing before the session ends.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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