Lawmakers get their shot at improving Idaho education

Will the warm feelings that sprouted out of Otter’s task force survive a legislative committee? Students Come First lacked the transparency of Otter’s education task force.

broberts@idahostatesman.comSeptember 10, 2013 

  • INTERIM COMMITTEE MEETS

    The 10-member K-12 Education System Interim Committee will hold its first meeting at 8:30 a.m. Thursday in the Lincoln Auditorium in the West Wing of the Capitol. A number of education leaders will address the committee on the challenges and needs for public education. Richard Westerberg, a State Board of Education member who chaired Gov. Butch Otter’s education task force, will address the committee on his group’s work at 9:15 a.m.

Weeks after educators and government and business leaders linked arms to craft a blueprint for improving education in Idaho, legislators will delve into some contentious issues they sidestepped.

The Legislature’s K-12 Education System Interim Committee will review the effects of teacher labor laws passed last session that divided educators around the state.

Idaho’s teachers union and the Idaho School Boards Association, which worked in support of more money for education and other proposals included in Gov. Butch Otter’s task force, take different views of the labor laws, a legacy of the ill-fated Students Come First plan defeated in a referendum by voters last fall.

Expect the committee to also vet Otter’s task force recommendations and possibly draft a priority list of what it thinks can — and should — be done as a crib sheet for lawmakers when they get back to town in January.

Three labor bills last session are set to expire in June, unless lawmakers take action.

The three laws include:

• Requiring all master agreements between districts and local unions to end on June 30 each year.

• Requiring trustees to consider more than seniority when reducing teaching staff. (The teachers union has not opposed this law.)

• Allowing trustees to cut teacher salaries.

Both the teachers union and the school board association are gathering data on how those played out this year, but they have not completed their assessment.

Legislative leaders want that feedback before the Legislature decides whether to extend or end those laws.

“If we don’t learn from that what works and what doesn’t we are making a mistake,” said Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, interim committee co-chairman.

The school board association supports the labor laws as a means to give the boards better control over school budgets, since salaries and benefits typically make up 85 percent of a district’s budget. Those budgets underwent cuts totaling $82 million by lawmakers beginning in 2008, leaving districts to try to make up the difference with supplemental levies passed by voters.

Penni Cyr, Idaho Education Association president, said the union opposes the one-year time limit on master contracts because it takes away local control. “Each district is different from every other district,” said Cyr. “Districts should be able to decide.”

Those labor laws are different from the task force’s work, which called for promoting students based on their mastery of subjects, putting $250 million into a teacher career ladder to boost pay — driven by instructor accountability — and restoring the lost $82 million.

“I am trying to keep those apart from all the other,” said Karen Echeverria, school board association executive director. “I think that is why the task force decided to leave these labor issues alone.”

Legislative leaders are counting on the interim committee to help them sort through the list of 21 recommendations for improving education that Otter’s task force released last month.

“We don’t want to wait until January to start looking at how we are going to accomplish some of these things,” said Sen. Brent Hill, Senate president pro tem. “They have got to try to set priorities.”

Without a clear road map on where lawmakers ought to go, legislators could be left with a bunch of ideas and a price tag that approaches $400 million, said Sen. John Goedde, a task force member and Senate Education Committee chairman.

“My fear is the Legislature is going to say ‘No way in heck we can do this,’ and not take any of the recommendations seriously,” Goedde said.

The task force intentionally did not set a priority list. “This isn’t a list of great ideas and pick whichever one you think you want to implement,” said Tom Luna, state superintendent of public instruction. “This is a comprehensive plan for improving education. If you ignore or don’t address one, the others aren’t going to be as successful.”

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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