Idaho State Superintendent Pushes Online Learning, Teacher Tenure Reforms

Published February 24, 2011

Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction says he wants to put his state on the map with a comprehensive series of school reform proposals.

Superintendent Tom Luna has a three-pronged plan to bring major changes to Idaho schools. Dubbed Students Come First, the plan would use technology to transform classrooms, redraft major teacher policies, and enhance fiscal transparency and accountability.

“The current system is not financially sustainable,” Luna told legislators at a joint session of the House and Senate in January. Luna said Idaho voters sent a strong message in the 2010 elections not to raise taxes. “We can make a clear path to educate students at a high level with limited resources, and I think the timing is right on,” he said.

Leaders in Indiana, Florida, and New Jersey have embarked on significant initiatives to change how public schools operate. Though less well known, Luna’s plan has garnered favorable attention from some leading national education reform groups.

“When you talk about states with leaders proposing bold reforms, Idaho would definitely be on that list,” said Foundation for Excellence in Education spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof.

‘Teachers Are Not Cogs’
The importance of promoting high-quality classroom instruction drives Luna’s plan. He proposes increasing class sizes by one or two students through teacher attrition, and using some of the estimated $100 million in annual savings to raise teacher pay through performance-based incentives.

“The tradeoff is for historic investments in teachers and technology,” Luna explained in his address to lawmakers. “What we’re talking about is recognizing the fact there’s not going to be any new money anytime soon.”

Emhof agrees schools need greater flexibility more than lower student-teacher ratios, citing Florida’s costly experience with a statewide class size mandate. “It is a fiscal drain to states,” she noted.

Another facet of the plan would phase out teacher tenure by not offering the same job protections to new hires and replacing the system with two-year rolling contracts for teachers and principals. Local experts say the proposal has great merit.

“Teachers are not cogs in a machine,” said Briana LeClaire, education policy analyst for the Idaho Freedom Foundation. “We know there are good teachers, bad teachers, and excellent teachers, yet they’re treated like factory workers.”

Choice, Online Learning Linked
LeClaire praised Luna’s call to expand virtual learning opportunities. “For a lot of kids in Idaho, the only school choice they’re going to have is what comes to them electronically,” she said.

Luna says online education is an important factor in increasing parental choice. The state already has several active virtual charter options, but the superintendent wants to open the door to allow colleges to operate them as well.

Luna further proposes furnishing laptops to all ninth graders, requiring students to take six online course credits, and extending dual college enrollment opportunities to seniors who complete high school credits early.

Emhof notes the workplace demands of a burgeoning digital world suggest students could benefit from virtual course offerings. “At some point they have to become adept with technology as a learning mechanism, because that’s going to be a very real occurrence in the future,” she said.

LeClaire supports the plan but thinks it doesn’t go far enough in incorporating the potential to adopt an “iTunes model” of customized digital learning. “The better thing to focus on is any content over any platform,” she said. “That is the future of education, not necessarily laptops for ninth graders.”

Increasing Transparency
Luna’s plan emphasizes public accountability by advancing requirements to guarantee parental input on teacher evaluations and posting school financial information online. Luna told lawmakers his goal is to ensure school districts take advantage of cost-saving statewide purchasing contracts and streamline non-classroom expenses.

The superintendent has also called for narrowing the focus of formal school-teacher negotiations to salaries and benefits, while making sure the collective bargaining process and finished agreements are made accessible to citizens.

“Opening up bargaining sessions to the public would help ensure that all relevant viewpoints are represented,” said Mike Reitz, general counsel and labor policy expert for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington. “It’s more difficult for a teachers union to grandstand and protest tight-fisted administrators when the public can evaluate the bargaining positions of both sides.”

Legislative ‘Advantage’

With backing from Gov. Butch Otter (R) and key committee chairs, Luna is counting on legislators to introduce and adopt several education reform bills in 2011. The plan’s chances of success could be helped by unified Republican Party power among the legislature and statewide constitutional offices.

“It doesn’t mean the path is paved in gold bricks, or we would have done it in the past,” Luna said. “It does give us an advantage that other states may not have.”

LeClaire sees tough choices ahead for legislators considering how to cut costs and restructure K-12 education.

“They’re totally accessible; there’s no insulation between them and the public,” she said. “To make these hard decisions that are going to affect the livelihoods of people you know and that you’re close to, I don’t envy them.”

The superintendent’s plan faces a tight timetable. The session typically lasts 70 to 80 days, and it is slated to end March 25.

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

Internet Info:
Idaho State Department of Education, Students Come First: