Luna education plan stirs controversy

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Lake Pend Oreille School District Superintendent Dick Cvitanich. (Photo by DAVID GUNTER)

SANDPOINT – When Idaho Gov. Butch Otter traveled across state lines last year to headline a Tea Party rally in Spokane, he told the crowd all about how things get done in his home state.

We balanced the budget, Otter said in his speech, and we did it without raising taxes.

With approximately $200 million gutted from Idaho’s K-12 public school funding over the past two years, some have argued that the governor balanced the budget on the back of public education.  Even more pointed are the accusations that Otter has used the budget crisis as an excuse to dismantle public education in the Gem State, a claim he vigorously disputes.

But when it comes to the matter of taxes, there might be a case to be made that the state has merely abdicated its responsibility, leaving communities in Idaho to act as a statewide web of miniature taxing districts that exist for the sole purpose of keeping local schools running through the use of supplemental levies.

At present, 73 percent of school districts in the state are being funded through that form of local taxation.  According to the Idaho School Board Association, 2011 will mark a new high in both the number of school districts seeking supplemental levy funds and the number of dollars coming from those tax initiatives.

Many of those districts will go to the voters for continued financial support on March 8, including the Lake Pend Oreille School District, which is requesting $13.6 million in the form of a two-year, supplemental instructional levy.

Unlike the state, school districts are forced to mount massive information campaigns every time the funding cycle begins anew, something LPOSD Superintendent Dick Cvitanich said adds a layer of complexity to the jobs of school board members, administrators and staff.  During the weeks leading up to each levy election, districts across the state not only work keep their schools operating effectively, but also to justify the latest round of funding requests that comes with their role as taxing districts.

“I think that’s an accurate description,” Cvitanich said.  “Because the state economy has gone so poorly, school districts and local communities are picking up the difference to make schools whole.”

Interviewed last week, Tom Luna, Idaho’s superintendent of public instruction, said the “customer-driven” education overhaul plan he has proposed with support from Otter would save enough money to decrease or eliminate the need for local public school taxes.  The legislation – actually a pair of bills sent to state lawmakers – goes by the name “Students Come First.”

“Many school districts have had to turn to supplemental levies in the past two years as state funding for Idaho’s public schools has been reduced,” Luna said.  “Rather than funding things like additional teachers, more classroom supplies or technology, these supplemental levies have had to fund things like maintenance and critical operations, which have been cut over the past two years.  

“Students Come First will put Idaho’s public schools back on firm financial footing going forward so local school districts no longer have to go to local voters to fund day-to-day operations,” he added.

Drawing on programs in states such as Maine and Texas, Luna said his Students Come First reforms would put laptops into the hands of all incoming ninth graders and require all high school students to take several online courses in order to graduate.  When combined with slightly larger class sizes and a revamped approach to teacher pay and contracts, Luna estimates his plan will save the state $500 million over the next five years.

“The only other option on the table right now is to further cut the public schools budget by between $35 million to $80 million,” he said.  “If we do this, it will mean more reductions to teacher pay, more furlough days, fewer days on the school calendar and less instructional time for Idaho kids.  That is unacceptable.  We have to look for another option.”

Following public comment this past week, Idaho lawmakers sent Luna back to the drawing board to rewrite sections of Students Come First and bring the revised proposal back for further review.  One section that the Idaho Education Association takes exception to is language they feel has a union-busting flavor in the form of a run on their ability to conduct collective bargaining. 

As public hearings continued last week, the tone of the debate got personal when Luna called teacher’s union opponents to his plan “completely out of touch” and accused them of an organized “misinformation” campaign aimed at scuttling his education reforms.  Beyond that, Luna’s office responded that the superintendent had worked directly with all stakeholders to craft his education plan, including the Idaho Education Association.

State teacher’s union president Sherri Wood, however, said Luna sang the praises of Idaho’s public education system last year when he was seeking re-election and then went on to propose a major overhaul of that same system as soon as he held onto office.  Embedded in those reforms, she added, was language that would “gut teacher rights in Idaho.”

Brian Smith, president of the local teacher’s union, was among those who attended public hearings on the plan.  Like Wood, he disagrees that Luna included the union membership in what the IEA calls a “hastily compiled” education plan.

“The only piece that the Idaho Education Association was consulted on was merit pay,” Smith said.  “Everything else in this plan was done without our input and in isolation from practically all educators across the state.

“If teachers are the most critical component of a student’s success, as Superintendent Luna has repeatedly said, then we should be providing teachers with more opportunities for input and not less,” he added.

While there seems to be little if any pushback on the concept of placing technology into the hands of students – part of what Luna calls creating the 21st Century Classroom – other aspects of the bills have sparked debate.  Some educators raise the Orwellian specter of larger classrooms filled with students taking online courses, where teachers are relegated to the role of policing the room to ensure that laptop screens are showing Internet courses, not Facebook pages.

In Boise, the call for education reforms appears to be creating a “piling on” environment.  On Tuesday, Republican Rep. Steve Thayn introduced a bill that would effectively eliminate the state’s $50 million kindergarten budget.  Under the plan, all but the most at-risk students would stay home until first grade, leaving the task of preparing those youngsters entirely up to their parents.

Tracy Gibson, director of the “Ready! For Kindergarten” program through the local Panhandle Alliance for Education, said Thayn’s plan to cut kindergarten funding would be a major misstep for Idaho schools.

“Our sources indicate that basic skills would be lacking and students would start behind,” she said.  “Currently, 44 percent of students nationally start kindergarten behind with skills of 3 and 4 year olds.  Waiting until first grade would only deepen the gap.”

According to Gibson, scrapping kindergarten classes would end up costing taxpayers far more than the annual savings Thayn has held up as the foundation of his argument.

Research shows us those children who start behind stay behind throughout the school years,” the director said.  “Imagine starting a 2-mile race half a mile behind the

other runners.  No matter how fast you run, it is difficult or impossible to catch up, especially if the lead runners are as fast as you are. 

Currently, public schools identify children who are behind and place them in special programs to catch them up,” Gibson went on.  “Programs like these are much more expensive than regular classrooms because remediation requires smaller groups, which in turn require more teachers, classrooms, aids and counselors.

“Delaying the start of school until first grade will end up being far more costly in the long run due to remediation or ‘catch up’ programs.”

Thayn, on the other hand, discounts the importance of early education – at least in the public school setting.

Are we providing daycare or are we providing an academic environment?” he asked when announcing his plan. “If we're paying for daycare, I think we could find some less expensive teachers.”

In calling the current system “a 19th Century model” of education that no longer is sustainable, Luna runs counter to the beliefs of most taxpayers who, according to a recent Gallup poll, tend give their own local schools high marks, even when they believe the national education system as a whole has its problems.

In poll results released this month, 77 percent of parents of public school students felt their child’s public school deserves a grade of A or B – the highest rating parents have given since the question was first asked in 1985.

LPOSD’s Cvitanich noted that results have been particularly good in his district, where local school taxes run below most other districts in North Idaho, and are 60 percent lower than the statewide average. 

From a teacher’s standpoint, Smith pointed to student achievement results that show close to 95 percent of local students reaching proficiency in reading tests, while nearly 90 percent have achieved proficiency in math.  In marked contrast to the chest bumping between Luna and the IEA, both Smith and Cvitanich said the relationship between district administration and teachers here has been the catalyst for student achievement, despite the added job of maintaining a taxing district to keep those gains in place.

And though the education department seems content to leave the actual work of imposing taxes to the 84 school districts in Idaho that currently have levies in place, Luna’s plan would have the state step in to administer those tax dollars after they have been collected.

“The state must ensure school district leaders are held accountable for student achievement results and taxpayer dollars at the local level,” Luna stated in a press release that outlined the “transparent accountability” portion of his Students Come First initiative.

Until Luna returns from the drawing board with his revisions, it remains to be seen what changes are in store for public education in Idaho.  One lawmaker, Idaho Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, took him to task for painting the picture “that this (teacher’s) union person is a monster,” adding that educators should have been given more input on creating the plan.

Whatever eventually transpires as far as teacher contracts, merit pay, student laptops and classroom sizes, there seems to be a risk that educators’ careers might end up as collateral damage in a political environment where, for some legislators, it has become fashionable to depict teachers as little more than overpaid day care workers.

There does seem to be a concerted effort by some to vilify teachers as members of a self-serving profession,” Smith said.  “It is unfortunate that proponents of this bill would use this unfounded portrayal to further their own agendas.”

On the ground in Bonner County, as well as in other Idaho school districts, Cvitanich – who has worked in five Pacific Northwest school districts during his career as an educator and administrator – said the picture looks completely different from the image of the outdated, overweighted system described in Luna’s plan.

The teachers in Idaho do more with kids, with less money, than anyplace I’ve ever worked,” he said.  “That’s why I was so disappointed to see this statewide message that politicizes what teachers do.”

The LPOSD superintendent agrees with some aspects of Luna’s proposals, especially those involved with transparency and accountability.  He does not, however, agree with the Students Come First moniker attached to the bills involved.

Teachers in Idaho do put kids first,” he said.  “In our district, teachers put kids first every day.”

For more information of proposed education reforms in Idaho, visit: www.sde.idaho.gov/site/studentsComeFirst 

For more information on the IEA’s position on the bills, visit: www.idahoea.org  

For questions regarding the LPOSD supplemental instruction levy measure scheduled for a vote on March 8, call Sup. Dick Cvitanich at (208) 263-2184 or email: dick.cvitanich@lposd.org

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