Idaho looks at sweeping school-reform plan

Betsy Russell photo

State schools Supt. Tom Luna addresses a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees on Wednesday to pitch his school-reform plan

January 12, 2011 9:40 a.m. - Updated: February 3, 2:15 a.m.

BOISE - Idaho would eliminate tenure for new teachers, limit all collective bargaining agreements with teachers to one year and raise class sizes in grades 4-12 to fund a big new emphasis on technology and accountability, under a sweeping plan outlined to lawmakers Wednesday by state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna.

The plan includes a laptop computer for every 9th grader and requirements for every high school student to take two online classes a year. It’d also eliminate 770 Idaho teachers’ jobs over the next five years, due to larger classes and more online courses.

“Now is the time for us to make significant, comprehensive changes to Idaho’s education system,” Luna declared. “The current system has become the No. 1 stumbling block to further improvement, because it is financially unsustainable.”

His many-pronged plan left some lawmakers bubbling with praise and others with questions.

“An awful lot of work has apparently gone into this and some great thought,” said Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “This is probably the most comprehensive school reform plan that I’ve seen in a while.” He said it’ll take lawmakers time to digest and consider the plan.

Luna portrayed his plan as “three pillars,” which he listed as: A “21st Century classroom, not limited by walls, bell schedules, school calendars or geography;” “great teachers and leaders,” a move he said will include a new pay-for-performance plan, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, and more flexibility on teacher hiring and layoffs from year to year; and “transparent accountability,” including requiring all district salary negotiations to occur in open public meetings.

“Tenure may have been a rite of passage in the past, it now serves as an obstacle to improving schools,” Luna declared. He said he also is proposing to eliminate seniority as a criteria in teacher layoffs, meaning longtime teachers could be laid off before newer ones. “Age and longevity does not define quality teaching,” he said. “If we’re putting students first, we cannot allow this to continue.”

Luna is proposing the plan with the full endorsement of Gov. Butch Otter, who joined him at a news conference Wednesday afternoon to tout it. Luna said both GOP officials interpret their re-elections as a mandate for the changes.

“The urgency that we’re moving this with is based on what the governor and I experienced this past year … going from community to community, a very, very rigorous campaign,” he said. “The people had a very clear choice, because those who defend the status quo ran very vigorous campaigns on how they thought education should operate now and in the future. The governor and I had a different plan. The people … rejected the status quo.”

University of Idaho political scientist David Adler, who sat through Luna’s presentation, said, “What an explosive package - he’s raised so many questions and problems.”

Idaho Education Association President Sherri Wood said her association worked with Luna on a pay-for-performance plan in 2009, but said, “On any of the rest of it, we had no idea.”

Sen. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, told Luna, “Education is a team sport - no one makes a unilateral decision.” He questioned why Luna didn’t work with teachers and other stakeholders on his reform plan.

Luna said, “We are always willing to work with any individual, any group, any organization that puts students first. That’s the only litmus test, if you will.”

He said he’d fund his new program without any new money, by shifts in the current school system - including enlarging average class sizes by 1.25 students per teacher in grades 4-12 to save $62.8 million. Luna would bump that up another three-quarters of a student in 2013, to save another $37.8 million.

“Just look at what we can accomplish by spending what we currently have differently,” he said. “We can give all students laptops. … We can provide teacher training… We can restore the salary grid, we can raise minimum teacher pay.”

Luna said there is “no correlation” between student-teacher ratio and student achievement. He said Idaho’s current average student-teacher ratio is 18.2, and it would increase to 19.8, though Wood said the reality in many classrooms is 30 to 35 students per teacher.

“Over five years we’re going to increase student-teacher ratio by 1.6 students, but in return we’re going to provide a tremendous amount of additional technology,” Luna said. “That additional technology is going to give the teachers the tools they need to manage the classroom even with an additional student or two.”

Wood disagreed, saying her 28 years of teaching showed her that class sizes matter. She said, “When we talk about what’s good for kids, raising class size is not good for kids.”


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