It’s time to cut through the noise of the advertisements, and time to look past the rancor of a 22-month debate. Idahoans must now make three complicated decisions that will define public schools for years to come.
They must decide whether to keep — or reject — the three Students Come First laws, a sweeping public education overhaul proposed in January 2011 by state schools superintendent Tom Luna. Upon close scrutiny, the laws include some overdue changes, some forward-thinking innovations, some sketchy ideas and some poison pills.
The decision isn’t as simple as the ads suggest: vote yes, and keep all three laws in state code; or vote no, and start from scratch.
Voters can split their ticket. And we recommend it. We oppose Proposition 1, an overreaching rewrite of the collective bargaining process. We reluctantly oppose Proposition 3, the so-called “laptop law” focusing on classroom technology. We endorse Proposition 2, the teacher merit pay plan.
PROPOSITION 1: NO
Proposition 1 contains several good components and good ideas.
Æ Limiting teacher contracts to one to two years makes sense. It allows school boards to respond in real time to changing economic and budgetary conditions. The elimination of so-called “evergreen clauses” — language rolled from one collective bargaining agreement to the next — also keeps school boards from being encumbered by decisions made years or decades ago.
Æ School boards need latitude if they are forced to lay off teachers because of declining enrollment and reduced funding. Prop 1 would allow elected trustees to keep a district’s best teachers, instead of forcing them to arbitrarily let go of its most recent hires.
Æ The law moves contract negotiations into public session. As staunch advocates of open government, we strongly support this provision.
If these elements had been presented as stand-alone items, we’d support them. If voters overturn Proposition 1, we’d support returning these provisions to law.
But Prop 1 is fraught with two fatal flaws.
The first flaw: Prop 1 limits contract negotiations to salaries and benefits. This falsely assumes that the only topics of interest in collective bargaining — to teachers and, more importantly, to taxpayers — are matters of compensation. That makes absolutely no sense. We believe teachers and school boards should have the latitude to negotiate class size, lesson planning time and other elements that are important to the learning experience.
The second flaw: Prop 1 upends the basic give and take that is central to negotiation, handing too great an advantage to trustees. If parties do not agree on a contract by June 10, a school board must act unilaterally, and set a pay scale “as it deems appropriate.” That could give a board carte blanche to run out the clock.
Good legislation strikes a fair balance. Prop 1 fails this basic test.
PROPOSITION 2: YES
Idahoans have talked about the pros and cons of teacher merit pay for years.
We believe the pros outweigh the cons: By rewarding good teachers, Idaho will better position itself to retain good teachers. We also believe it’s time to stop talking — and time to give this concept a try.
In Prop 2, Luna has presented a plan worth trying.
His premise is sound. Teachers will be graded on student growth, a measure of advancement established at the local level. Teachers can get bonuses for taking on hard-to-fill positions, which could include math and science, special education or other areas. Bonuses are available for teachers who take on a mentoring or leadership role.
Based on the first year results, these bonuses are attainable — yet significant. An estimated 85 percent of teachers will share in the $38 million bonus pool, receiving $2,000 on average.
Are there question marks to Prop 2? Absolutely.
Will merit pay affix even greater weight to student standardized test scores, as opponents claim? That bears scrutiny. Idaho students are certainly not undertested, and the scores are certainly not underemphasized. At the same time, test scores will inevitably factor into a merit pay metric.
Will star teachers at struggling schools fall through the cracks, since bonuses are awarded only to teachers at a qualifying school? Perhaps the law should be fine-tuned to provide some bonuses on an individual basis. But we also understand the logic of rewarding all teachers at a school that makes the grade. This encourages teamwork and recognizes the value, top to bottom, of a strong faculty.
These are question marks, not show-stoppers. Prop 2 represents a good starting point.
The fact that Prop 2 is a more polished product probably reflects on the process. In 2008, Luna fell two votes shy of getting a teacher merit pay plan through the Senate. After that, Luna discussed a rewrite with several education groups — including the Idaho Education Association, the teachers’ union now spearheading the campaign to overturn these laws. Those discussions were the origin of Prop 2.
Critics have roundly and deservedly castigated Luna for springing his ideas on Idahoans in January 2011. Here, the process worked. So does the legislation.
PROPOSITION 3: NO
Our editorial board is deeply divided on Prop 3. Our endorsement could have gone either way.
Once again, we found a lot to like:
Æ The law enables high school students to earn up to 36 credits for college or technical school, for free. One of the main shortcomings of the Idaho education system — one readily acknowledged, even by the opposition — is the fact that too few graduates continue their studies after high school. This provision attacks this problem head-on.
Æ We support the controversial virtual learning component, requiring high school students to take two online course credits. We think it is important for students to be able to learn in a virtual setting, in addition to a traditional classroom setting. This provision sets Idaho in that direction.
Our editorial board was split on the centerpiece of Prop 3: equipping high-school teachers and students with laptops.
We understand the intent: bridging the technology gap that divides Idaho’s districts, schools and students. We understand the need to give all Idaho graduates the skills needed to learn, to work and to compete in a digital world.
But the laptop plan is a costly, flawed attempt to get there. The contract to provide laptops, issued Tuesday to Hewlett-Packard, could run at least $167.8 million over eight years. Supporters point to the per-unit annual cost of $292.77. But when this program is fully functioning, it will run nearly $26.5 million per year.
Idaho’s schools are hardly flush with cash — and are in no position to spend this much money inefficiently. Some students already have laptops, or tablets or smartphones that have the same value as learning tools. In order to get technology into the hands of kids who need it, Idaho will foist that same technology on countless kids who don’t. And upon districts that may have locally tailored ideas that would yield a better return on taxpayer investment.
On top of that, the Legislature is required by statute to put money into technology — before it funds anything else, including teaching positions. This sets up an inevitable struggle for dollars. Unless the Legislature rescinds the laptop law, which seems unlikely, the state would be locked into an eight-year agreement to purchase, perhaps, an outmoded learning tool.
There has to be a better way to upgrade our schools, bridge the digital divide within our classrooms, and encourage local programs that meet local needs. But the first step is to reboot, and vote no on Prop 3.
“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board.