Our View: Hear Luna out as he helps guide next steps for task force

September 10, 2013 

The Tom Luna who appeared before the Idaho Statesman's Editorial Board on Monday displayed a team-player focus that was both realistic and refreshing.

It was realistic because Luna knows the new and energetic recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter's Task Force for Improving Education could suffer the same demise that so many other Idaho education reform initiatives have met in the dusty file drawers of time. And that includes his own work on the Students Come First proposals that languish in those policy dungeons today.

It was refreshing because Luna spoke of "our task force." He was among the 31 members who for eight months considered, designed and debated an Idaho education system without regard to what it might cost, but what it might gain. It was similarly refreshing because Luna spent considerable time comparing the failings of past initiatives, especially his own: It was aimed at 105 legislators and one governor and not the general population; it was unfortunately sold as three ideas when there were actually dozens of great thoughts lost in the details; and it was sold in a process that he now says was not nearly as transparent or collaborative as it should have been.

We agree with Luna that this time it is not about him. It has always been about "implementation."

The present politically and ideologically diverse task force is just the recipe for success needed for reforms. There is no doubt it survives to this date, in part, because it is not brought to you solely by Tom Luna.

But we believe the process will benefit immensely from all the things Luna learned the hard way. If Idahoans are smart, they will hear him out when he is out selling the task force.

"This isn't the only task force we've ever seen in Idaho," said Luna. He recalls the group Otter pulled together in 2007, the Education Alliance of Idaho, which never got the necessary traction, mainly because, after all the talk, "programs have to change, habits have to change."

Luna is in the position to recognize the pitfalls this initiative can avoid, and he should be heard.

For instance, Otter must press the Legislature for funding beyond the 2 to 3 percent annual increases. It is going to cost more than that to get real reform. The task force findings, over time, call for somewhere between $350 and $400 million. Just as reforms don't happen all at once and take years, the funding commitment will have to be there for several years to pay for things such as restored operational funding that schools lost five years ago, teacher compensation plans and the kind of assistance smaller districts will need to keep pace with more urban areas that benefit from a larger tax base and personal income.

Technology, such as Wi-Fi access in schools, can level the playing field geographically, but it is another expense.

We agree with Luna that the governor, the Legislature and parents must accept that the standards for Idaho students are too low. Though isolated statistics can demonstrate gains from year to year in math and other courses based on Idaho's present standards, our kids are not measuring up out there in the real world of college and the workplace.

About 75 percent of two-year college students and 25 percent of four-year Idaho students require remediation to catch up with college peers. Though more high school kids are taking the opportunity to take SAT college entrance exams, only 25 percent are getting scores indicating they are college-ready.

If Idaho is content with the money it invests in education now and the fact that only 39 percent of graduates will enroll in one year of college or seek a one-year certificate in a trade, the future is set. If Idahoans want the goal of 60 percent - what the business sector predicts will be necessary for students to get sustainable employment in 2020 - they have to start now.

When along comes a plan that the superintendent of public instruction, teachers, teachers unions, school administrators and the business community enthusiastically support, it deserves more than to be ignored.

"So I say to all those who say this plan is too expensive: What is your plan?" said Luna.

That will be a good question to ask legislators in next year's session.

"Our View" is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman's editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, email editorial@idahostatesman.com.

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