Idaho Gov. Signs Two Sweeping Reform Bills

Published March 28, 2011

Amid a rancorous atmosphere that included vandalism against Idaho’s top public school administrator and threats of violence against lawmakers, Governor Butch Otter (R) signed a pair of bills aimed at a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s elementary and secondary schools.

Senate Bills 1108 and 1110 both passed Idaho’s upper chamber by 20-15 votes, with eight Republicans and the entire Democratic caucus in opposition. The bills passed by large margins in the House. Together the legislation would phase out teacher tenure and phase in performance pay, include student achievement and parental input in professional evaluations, and limit the scope of public-employee union collective bargaining.

“It’s a great start, and it’s the beginning of where we need to go,” said Briana LeClaire, an education policy analyst for the Idaho Freedom Foundation. “The labor reform particularly will cause a lot more openness and transparency.”

‘Largest Step in 40 Years’
A third bill, Senate Bill 1113, was returned to the Senate’s education committee for technical changes. SB 1113 would modify the state’s school funding formula to provide greater local spending flexibility. Funds would be available from slightly increased class sizes to invest in classroom technology and upgrade teacher base pay. The bill initially cleared the committee by a 5-4 vote.

“In the education arena, this is the largest step that’s ever been attempted during my tenure in the state legislature,” said Senate Education Committee chairman John Goedde (R-Coeur d’Alene), who has served since 2001. “Some would suggest it’s the largest reform attempt in 40 years.”

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna has championed the reforms, dubbed “Students Come First.”

“The more people understand the facts that are in this plan, and separate the facts from the myths, the more support we get,” Luna said. “People recognize that what we’re doing is not financially sustainable.”

The Senate vote was the largest obstacle in the reform process. “We’re not taking anything for granted,” said Luna. “But we knew the high water mark was the Senate, which is why we started there.”

Uncivil Tactics
Two incidents directly affecting Luna highlighted the intensity of opposition to reform. On Feb. 12 a self-identified teacher angrily confronted Luna at his mother’s house. Two nights later, the superintendent’s truck was defaced with graffiti and its tires slashed while parked in the driveway of his Nampa home.

“Obviously, the opponents of this, some of them have crossed the line,” Luna said.

The reform plan’s leading antagonists in the Idaho Education Association issued a statement denouncing the vandalism and stating the union had “urged members to act with civility and professionalism.”

Some reform opponents posted on Facebook the home addresses and phone numbers of lawmakers backing the plan, urging others to confront them or pressure their neighbors.

LeClaire says the tactics are symptomatic of a larger trend. “Judging from the activity in Wisconsin, it’s typical union politics,” she said.

The opposition in Idaho has been muted in comparison with Wisconsin, however, where union demonstrators and paid protestors occupied the capitol building for weeks,.

“The debate thus far in this body has been civil, and I would not expect anything less than that as this moves forward,” said Goedde.

Upgrading Technology
Initial resistance to the reform plan centered on Luna’s proposal to provide taxpayer-funded laptop computers to all high school freshmen.

“Early on there was a perception we were going to give 9th graders laptops, and they were going to go home into their bedrooms and find inappropriate places on the Internet,” said Goedde. “That has been fairly well dispelled.”

Goedde says the proposal addresses those concerns by leaving authority to local school trustees to set policies on laptop use.

At least one group is urging lawmakers to expand digital learning. The Idaho Freedom Foundation sponsored a visit from high-profile consultant Tom Vander Ark to explain the sweeping recommendations of the national Digital Learning Council. 

“We hope that he can give the legislature an overall picture of what digital learning is doing in other states, and how Idaho can get there,” said LeClaire.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.