Nearly two years ago, Boise outdoors writer Mike Lanza was among the Idaho parents angered by schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s three-pronged plan for school reform and outraged that lawmakers approved the package despite the uproar.
A newcomer to political activism, he co-chaired the group that spearheaded a statewide petition drive to get the measures on the ballot, then became chairman and spokesman for the “Vote No” campaign.
On Tuesday night, Lanza celebrated the campaign’s resounding victory — and the three laws’ ouster with margins ranging from 14 to 33 percentage points.
Idaho Parents and Teachers Together, the group Lanza co-chairs with Maria Greeley, has said it wants to work toward “real education reform.”
What follows are excerpts from a Statesman conversation with Lanza on Thursday.
The Vote No campaign defeated some of the most powerful political people in Idaho — Gov. Otter, Superintendent Luna, Phil Reberger, Debbie Field, Frank VanderSloot. What was the secret?
I think there wasn’t any secret, really. People remembered that the process was flawed.
We made a lot of phone calls and sent a lot of emails and despite 90, 95 percent of the public being opposed to the laws, (the 2011 Legislature) passed them anyway.
In the past year and a half-plus, I heard from many people all across Idaho. … It offended their fundamental sense of fairness. They didn’t like the way teachers were being treated. That’s clearly what was unpopular about the merit-pay plan and taking away the right to bargain for more than pay and benefits.
The vote on Prop 3 (two-thirds of participating Idahoans voted against the laptop law) ... was a pretty clear mandate.
We worked hard to get the message out to people. Clearly, our use of social media, primarily Facebook, was tremendously effective.
When did you think you could win this?
When we had all the signatures (more than 74,000) on the petitions. I’d never been involved in an experience like that.
I felt then, if we could pull that off … that was a demonstration that the public was on our side.
Tom Luna said repeatedly that the “No” campaign’s representation as a grassroots effort was false because around 95 percent of the funding came from the national and Idaho teachers’ unions.
We’ve never tried to hide or obscure the fact that most of our money came from teachers unions, both the IEA (about $600,000) and NEA (about $2.8 million).
IEA money is dues money, so that money comes from teachers, not wealthy people. Teachers were on our side, and Frank VanderSloot (the Idaho billionaire and Melaleuca CEO who kicked in $1.6 million) was on the other side.
We had more than 800 individual donors. The other side had about 100. And they accuse us of not having a broad base of support.
How many people were involved in the “Vote No” effort?
Back during the petition drive, we made a conservative estimate that about 3,000 people circulated petitions.
Over the past six, seven months as our campaign ramped up again, I would say easily several hundred people were involved. It could have been more than 1,000.
We had a lot of house parties. We had 24,000 likes on our Facebook page. The other side had like 1,000.
How crucial was the NEA and its Executive Director John Stocks in defeating the three laws?
I didn’t talk to John Stocks (a former Idaho lawmaker) at all; he didn’t work on the campaign.
I can’t imagine ... that NEA’s involvement could help us at all, beyond the obvious financial support.
We live in a state where the other side tried to make it about unions because they expected people to react negatively. Having the NEA on our side wasn’t going to bring us any votes.
We won by such a comfortable margin that I don’t think we can attribute the results to anything, really, besides voter mandate. People understood what it was about and they weren’t going to be swayed by lots of ads.
Frank VanderSloot spent a lot of money, too. The influence of money only gets you so far.
You want to talk to Luna and legislators about collaborative education reform heading into the 2013 legislature. Where do you want to see that go?
We’re having a lot of conversations already. I was hardly off my phone yesterday. We have business leaders and educators at all levels, school board administrators, obviously the IEA, involved. We’re very busily reaching out to people we think will be helpful in the process.
We haven’t talked to Luna yet, but we’re starting to talk to lawmakers, and we’ll talk with the governor’s office.
Do you expect anything substantive to emerge for the session that starts in January?
No, I don’t. Professionals in education know that reform is not something you accomplish overnight. We want to start and follow through on a process with a specific timetable and a goal.
What was missing (in the now-repealed laws) and what we need is to define what we need to accomplish. I think it’s going to be a months-long process that will involve lots of people.
Would the education reform you envision include the three general areas covered by the Luna laws - teacher contracts, merit pay, classroom technology?
No. I don’t know what it would cover. I don’t think there was anything in those three laws that was based on evidence of what would work.
I can’t imagine we won’t talk about technology.
The broader goals everyone’s going to agree on. We want student achievement to improve. We’re bringing all the stakeholders to the table so we can have a real and honest conversation about what our schools need and how to get it.
How important is public involvement?
Public schools touch everyone. … They’re very personal to us.
We don’t know who picks up our trash or delivers our mail; we may not know our city councilors and school board members. But we sure know who our children’s teachers are.
So when political leaders try to make major changes in public schools, by definition you have to make your plan public and involve teachers and administrators. Without that kind of buy-in, the plan is doomed to fail.
What from your life as a writer and outdoorsman prepared you for life as a political strategist?
Because I’ve made a living for about 30 years now as a writer and communicator, that probably helped with the campaign.
Also, I have a couple of elementary school kids, so what’s important to me and some of those basic values, I think, are important to a lot of other people.
Any other areas where you're inclined to apply your strategic skills?
I don’t know the answer to that yet. Probably.
Between when we did the petition drive and when the (Vote No) campaign started, I chaired the Boise school levy campaign.
Are you interested in going from political strategist to decision-maker — school board, Legislature, other office?
Possibly, but I don’t know yet what that would be. Frankly, when two Boise School Board members made it clear they were leaving the board this year, I was approached. I decided the timing wasn’t right for me.
District 19, where I live, also had openings, but ... I was very supportive of the people who were running.
How long have you been in Idaho?
Since 1998. We moved here from New Hampshire. I grew up in Massachusetts. We wanted to move west. … We checked out a lot of places, and Idaho looked like the place we wanted to be. We love Boise and we love Idaho. We’re very happy we settled here.
Our kids have great teachers, and we really like our schools system.
What would Idahoans be surprised to know about you?
That I’m not as serious a person as I might sound like, when I’m speaking on behalf of a campaign.
And I certainly never have pursued any kind of political activism before.
Does activism suit you?
Yes, I think it does. Many people you end up working with are committed and smart and with their hearts in the right place. They’re not in it for themselves.
It’s a good feeling to know a lot of people like that. It’s inspirational.
You've had a pretty intense taste of politics now. Does it make you more or less optimistic about the way our system works?
I’ve been telling everybody since election night, this makes me tremendously optimistic because I think we’ve demonstrated that, ultimately, voters do get the final say.
What it has taught me, also, is democracy works as long as we’re paying attention and we’re willing to engage and participate.
What surprised you?
I think the thing that surprised and disappointed me the most is the extent to which our elected leaders refused to listen to a very clear outcry from the public.
This (campaign) would not have been necessary if elected leaders had listened to what the public wanted in the first place.
To what do you attribute your calm, even-tempered demeanor in the hurricane of a bitter political campaign?
Maybe getting enough exercise, so I can burn off… . It certainly can be very frustrating at times.
And I have a fundamental belief that we can always speak to each other in a respectful way and disagree and be opposed to each others’ ideas without biting each others’ heads off.
Also, I think it’s very calming to feel you’re on the right side of things.
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447