Of the three Idaho education laws up for possible repeal on the November ballot, anecdotal and poll evidence indicates that the so-called laptop law is the least popular.
Its the one that triggers the most outrage instinctively among parents, said Boise parent Mike Lanza, chairman of Vote No on Props 1, 2 and 3. Its clearly the one that galvanized the opposition from the outset.
State Superintendent Tom Luna, who authored the 2011 laws, said hes surprised that Proposition 3 calling for laptops for all high school students, online-course graduation requirements and other classroom technology boosts has proved harder to win support for than the laws that restrict teacher contract negotiations and establish pay for performance.
What opponents consider their most potent argument is the same statement that proponents call the campaigns most misleading: that the law replaces teachers with technology.
Its a good sound bite, Luna said, but nobodys going to replace a teacher in the classroom with a laptop.
When Luna introduced his Students Come First reform package in January 2011, he initially suggested paring 770 teaching jobs statewide over five years through attrition to pay for the measures. That sparked fervent opposition, and Luna and lawmakers decided to shift money within the public schools budget.
Now, officials say, the technology measure is financed by new general fund dollars that will not slice into the money available for teachers.
But Lanza and other opponents say Idahos history of reducing education funding the fourth-steepest decline in the nation since 2008, according to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities and a continued tight economy mean that teachers jobs will fall and class sizes will rise if the law stays in place.
When you take the money out of the big pot and put it in this specific revenue stream, it reduces the money available for other school district funding, said Jerry Evans, who retired in 1995 after 16 years as Idahos superintendent of public instruction. He opposes the three laws.
A BOON IN MERIDIAN FOR TECHNOLOGY
School districts throughout the state have already received millions in technology funding under the law. A total of about $13 million went out last year, including statewide efforts on wireless access and professional development.
Meridian has 35,600 students, the states largest school district by far, and it got $1 million enough to equip each of the districts more than 1,800 classrooms with projectors and document cameras, Superintendent Linda Clark said.
She said the technology money that accompanies the law has been a boon for the district and fits well with Meridians long-standing emphasis on leading-edge technology. The district was one of 29 in the nation invited by the national nonprofit Digital Promise to join the League of Innovative Schools.
Our district has not taken a position on Proposition 3, Clark said, but were making really good use of the money. They are moving our current technology agenda forward.
This year the district has been allocated a little more than $1 million for classroom technology, she said, but the district is waiting to spend it.
Its not clear what happens to the current years money if the propositions are voted down, Clark said. We would have moved more quickly if not for the uncertainty. We spent last years money as quickly as we could.
Luna says he aims to create 21st Century classrooms throughout Idaho, where teachers and students use the latest technology to expand educational opportunities and prepare students for college success.
The laws opponents embrace that goal but not the chosen pathway.
Anyone whos been around our schools for some time would agree we need to find a way to use technology to expand the reach and effectiveness of many of our teachers, Evans said. But many students already have laptops, he said. Why do they need another one?
We havent even figured out how theyre going to use it and for what, except to say that every student has to use it for two online credits, he said.
Not so, said State Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath.
The primary use of the laptop devices will be in the classroom with the teacher to enhance the lesson, McGrath said. That is the goal of creating the 1:1 ratio of teachers and students to laptop devices in every classroom, and it is why we continue to reiterate that these devices will become the textbook for every class, the word processor in English, the calculator in math and the research tool in science.
Digital texts cost less and are more readily updated than traditional textbooks, Luna said, and in some cases Idaho schools could purchase only the portions of the text they intend to use.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggested this month that schools should move as quickly as possible away from printed texts.
Centennial High Schools Cindy Wilson is a big believer in technology enhancing teachers lessons. She also is a passionate opponent of Proposition 3 and its education-law companions on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Wilsons government and citizenship students have Constitution apps on their smartphones and peruse campaign finance filings online. They blog and Skype with students in Turkey via an online exchange program. Everybodys engaged. Everybody, she said.
She worries that the graduation requirement for two online classes will rob students of vital interaction with teachers and each other. And she dislikes the top-down mandate to provide laptops for every student.
I know what my students need for my classroom, and I want to have the resources to provide it for them, she said. And personally, I think laptops are outdated.
Wilsons students use their own smartphones and other devices in class, sharing with peers who dont have them, she said.
It works out great, she said. But a program that provides equal devices to all students does have the virtue of alleviating the gap between the haves and the have-nots, she said.
This is where the equity piece comes in for me, said Wendy Horman of Idaho Falls, a longtime school board member who co-chairs the Yes campaign.
There are kids who dont have access to the devices or to the Internet, and the more rural you get, the less access you have, she said. You shouldnt be limited by what your ZIP code is.
Maine, on which Idahos initiative is partly modeled, is also a predominantly rural state.
LINING UP FOR LAPTOPS
Idahos first rollout of the devices, to teachers and other staff statewide, was to have taken place by now. But lack of competitive bidding slowed the process, and the state is still negotiating with prospective vendors.
If Proposition 3 fails, the law would be nullified and so would any contract already entered.
If voters retain the law, laptops are to be handed out to all Idaho high school students over the next three years, with students in Meridian, Boise and seven other Treasure Valley districts among the first in line.
About 84 percent of all Idaho high schools vied to be among the first one-third to get laptops. Luna said that indicates strong district attraction to the laptop law, despite rhetoric to the contrary.
The Boise School Board has formally opposed all three propositions, and Luna contends that position is undercut by the districts desire for the laptops. At a public forum last week, Lunas deputy chief of staff read aloud from the districts application for the laptops, which said the program would boost student achievement. He suggested that Boise bow out of the competition, so the 4,700 laptops its expected to receive next year could go elsewhere.
Boise Superintendent Don Coberly replied: They take our money and tell us to fill out an application. Of course we filled out the application. Wouldnt you?
Lanza said districts that get laptops in the final third of the rollout would receive them the same year graduating seniors will be required to have completed two online courses: If (districts) have to be part of it and its a three-year rollout, they want to be in the first third.
If sufficient funding is available, Luna said he might ask the Legislature to compress the laptop distribution process to two years, so that the remaining two-thirds of high school students would get laptops in 2014-15.
The superintendent said he believes the laptop initiative will move forward even if the law is voted down and the appropriated funding is diverted to the state public education stabilization fund. Districts likely would ask the Legislature to allocate the money for laptops, he said.
That train has left the station, Luna said.
POLLS AND PROSPECTS
Two polls conducted the week of Oct. 8 indicate that Prop 3 has weaker support and fewer undecided voters than the other two propositions. A poll of 625 people commissioned by the Idaho Statesman found 47 percent opposed, 40 percent in favor and 17 percent undecided. A 500-person survey conducted for the Vote No campaign showed 53 percent opposed.
The answer is to overturn these laws and go back to the drawing board, involving parents, teachers and other stakeholders in the process, Lanza said.
Horman said people who are dissatisfied with the technology law should advocate changes when the Legislature convenes in January. Some changes already have been made, and others are likely in the upcoming legislative session.
One notable change made by the State Board of Education reduced the online-course graduation requirement, originally envisioned as eight credits, to two.
We should tweak it rather than pull the rug out from under the system, Horman said. If our objective really is a modern, information-age education system vs. an industrial-age education system, then I think the tech piece is crucial.
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447