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School Reforms Tested At Idaho Ballot Box

Jessica Robinson


COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho - Voters in several states across the country will decide on education measures this November. Washington votes on whether to allow charter schools and Idaho is considering whether to keep not one – but three brand new laws. They overhaul everything from how teachers are paid to how kids learn in the classroom. The vote is a test for some controversial ideas in education – and for the man behind them.

Idaho classrooms are political battlegrounds this fall. Many teachers, like Coeur d’Alene band instructor Tim Sandford, strongly oppose the Idaho education laws. That’s creating discord with administrators who are trying to implement the changes even as the election looms.

Sandford describes the atmosphere in his school this way: “Toxic, it’s toxic.”

Sandford is careful not to talk about the election on school grounds. So we’ve met in his dining room. He says he’s watched two trend lines cross over his career teaching music: his budget has gone down, and the number of classes he teaches has gone up.

“I now run two concert bands, two jazz bands, two orchestras, pep band, marching band, stomp, guitar and music appreciation," Sandford says. "On $700 a year.”

That’s a fifth of what his budget was in 1995.

“So! Now I have to fundraise,” he says.

And that’s why Sandford was incredulous when the district recently installed a brand new digital projector and screen in his band room -- funded by one of Idaho’s new education initiatives. The technological upgrade to Sandford’s classroom is worth more than his entire budget.

“While I appreciate it, it’s not making me a better teacher," he says. "My kids need real live instruments in their hands, they need real live pencil and paper. And I’m not so certain that overhead projector is going to provide that for them.”

Idaho isn’t the only state making big changes to education. Just since the beginning of the last school year, 15 states have new rules regarding teacher performance, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. That includes Washington and Oregon. Other states are tackling teacher bargaining rights and dabbling in more classroom technology.

What makes Idaho different is that did all of those things, all at once. And even in this solidly red state, teachers and parents reacted -- collecting enough signatures to force referendum votes to overturn the whole thing.

Idaho voters have been blasted with TV, radio and internet ads in what’s become the most heated issue of the 2012 election in Idaho.

The overhaul comes in three parts. Prop 1 makes contract negotiations public and limits those negotiations to salary and benefits. Prop 2 implements a merit pay system based on school-wide student improvement. And under Prop 3, every high school student would eventually have a laptop and even take classes online.

According to the latest campaign finance reports, the National Education Association, the teachers union, has given more than $1 million to defeat the Idaho measures. Groups backing the changes are pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars in too.

The man behind these laws is recently gave a presentation to a Republican group in north Idaho. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna told the audience unions are standing in the way of changing the status quo in Idaho and elsewhere.

“If you want to reform this system we all have the same common opponent and that is the unions," Luna said. "The union leaders do not want to see this reform – and they are fighting it from liberal Chicago to moderate Wisconsin to conservative Idaho.”

Advocates for Idaho’s education laws argue they’re already working. Luna points to classroom technology that allows rural schools to beam in courses in subjects they couldn’t otherwise offer. And he says, based on last year’s test results, 80 percent of Idaho teachers are up for a bonus.

Education researcher Paul Hill of the University of Washington says there are several reasons Idaho and other states are considering major school reform right now. The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program pushed for closer measurements of teacher performance.

Meanwhile, he says teacher layoffs over the last several years have made some question teacher tenure and seniority systems.

“There’s a sense of momentum around the country that state after state has been adopting these things," Hill says. "And Idaho actually with Mr. Luna has been a national leader in some kinds of innovation.”

There’s more at stake in this election for Idaho School Superintendent Tom Luna than his education laws. He is an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and has been mentioned as a potential Secretary of Education.

On the Web:

Campaign for Idaho’s new education laws

Campaign against Idaho’s new education laws

State overview of the laws

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network