Our View: Idaho schools chief Luna became lightning rod for criticism

January 28, 2014 

Education Fight What If

Public schools chief Tom Luna testifies in front of lawmakers in Boise in 2011.

CHARLIE LITCHFIELD — AP

The last several times we visited with or listened to Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna at an event, we encountered a man focused on a mission to do everything in his power to advance Idaho’s education goals.

We don’t think that is a new course or any sign of an educational or managerial epiphany. We think Luna, who announced Monday he will not run again for his seat, had found a sweet spot in the moment and conversation that he wanted to seize and expand upon. A spot devoid of politics.

That’s pretty hard to do for the lightning rod of controversy that Luna became as the face of the Students Come First campaign in 2012 that went down in defeat.

For much of last year we saw in Luna a man who was beginning to realize that — when he was involved in some initiative — critics seemed to seize more on him than the initiative itself:

- Gov. Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education — that’s just Luna trying to put lipstick on Students Come First and sell it again.

- Bringing the Internet and computers and statewide connectivity to Idaho’s schools — that’s just Luna trying to reward campaign contributors with contracts.

- Publicly admitting missteps and failures during Students Come First — that’s vintage Luna willing to say anything to sway public opinion.

- Participating in the 31-member bi-partisan Task Force and stumping for its 21 recommendations — that’s just Luna trying to get re-elected.

- Cautioning the Legislature and Otter that teacher funding had better be in the 2015 budget equation — that’s just Luna pandering to teachers he has alienated.

From our conversations with Luna and our observations, we knew all of this was not lost on him. He had become contrite. He was looking more like a team player than a coach.

In meetings, and perhaps in editorials, he was beginning to see, hear and believe the reports of the effects of his political toxicity on the educational goals for Idaho that would outlive him and all of his critics.

On Monday, Luna took steps to take away the power of his critics by disengaging from the political side. We are glad he did.

“Today, we have a clear path forward to accomplishing our goal for every Idaho student to graduate from high school prepared to go on to postsecondary education or the workforce without the need for remediation,” Luna wrote in a release announcing his intention not to run for re-election. “Over the years, many of our efforts have been successful and some not, but they have all led us to where we are today — bipartisan support for the path to achieving our goal. Yet it seems that all my actions currently are being filtered through a re-election lens. Because of this, I believe there are some who currently support what we are doing, but who might feel the need to distance themselves from this work — or even oppose it — simply because they think it might benefit me politically in the future. I want to take that off the table.”

Luna, like fellow Republican Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who is not seeking re-election either, has taken a step away from politics and decided to focus on the goal.

This is not Luna’s obituary. Far from it. This is him giving notice that his job was not as important as his mission.

Without all that baggage we wish him godspeed.

“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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