When Idaho voters roundly rejected Propositions 1, 2 and 3 — Superintendent Tom Luna’s “Students Come First” education reforms — it was a stinging blow to both Luna and Gov. Butch Otter. After having their proverbial hats handed to them, both promised to start over and gather professionals from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives to craft a plan to improve K-12 education in Idaho that would have broad support.
Does that mean all the concepts in Students Come First should be dumped in the scrap heap? No. Some of them, when presented individually, have always been worthy of support. What voters objected to, as much as anything, was the way they were all lumped into one, huge, sweeping package that was sprung on an unprepared state right before the Legislature convened — and right after Luna’s re-election.
The 31-member Task Force for Improving Education held its three scheduled meetings on Jan. 11, 25 and Feb. 8, but a formal, comprehensive plan of recommended reforms hasn’t been issued yet.
This editorial board urged legislators not to thwart the message sent by voters in November by brashly trying to reinstate Students Come First principles in the 2013 Legislature. Wait for a final verdict from Otter’s task force, then proceed with legislation.
Nonetheless, some of the components of Proposition 1 have found new life in the form of bills introduced in the 2013 Legislature, and they deal with the flexibility school boards have in negotiating contracts with teachers. The series of proposals would:
n Allow for two-year extensions on master agreements with teachers for non-salary issues, but salaries and benefits would be negotiated annually,
n Allow school boards authority to cut teacher salaries across the board,
n Set a deadline for districts and unions to reach a contract agreement, and if there’s no deal reached by that date, the last offer is enforced,
n Allow boards to consider teacher performance and certification when layoffs are necessary, as opposed to seniority only,
n Require contract negotiations to be done in public.
Yes, there are some similarities between these and Proposition 1. But there are also differences. Prop. 1 would have limited bargaining to salary and benefits. These don’t. Look at them not as “education reform” but as expanding the ability of districts to make business decisions.
Here’s the important distinction between them and the overall Students Come First package that justifies these bills and makes them worthy of support: they don’t change the way our kids are educated. They don’t impose a questionable, costly laptop program on classrooms or mandate online courses. They don’t increase class sizes. They don’t put teachers in the position of keeping successful teaching methods under their hats in fear of losing their bonuses to other “competing” schools.
Instead, they give school districts the important flexibility they need in unstable financial times.
If you think education is underfunded in Idaho, don’t blame our school districts. All they can do is get the most out of what the Legislature gives them. Many have asked for — and received — supplemental levies, but sometimes even that isn’t enough to fend off needed budget cuts.
When those cuts are necessary, districts shouldn’t be locked into multi-year contracts. And while some union members may complain that school boards would be allowed to “run out the clock” to avoid making good-faith contract negotiations, you could also argue that without the mandatory deadline, unions, too, could stall as a negotiating tactic.
Not every member of every school board in Idaho supports this legislation. Then again, not every union-member teacher wants his or her dues money going to support Democrat candidates. It cuts both ways.
Teachers have extremely challenging, important jobs. Their compensation is modest, at best. Nobody likes the prospect of having to lay them off or cut their pay — especially school board members, who take on those roles largely out of admiration for educators.
But sometimes it has to happen, just like it happens in virtually every other occupation. And when it does, the people who make those tough decisions must have the power to do their jobs.
* Our view is based on the majority opinions of the Idaho Press-Tribune editorial board. Members of the board are Publisher Matt Davison, Managing Editor Vickie Holbrook, Opinion Editor Phil Bridges and community members Maria Radovich, Mike Fuller, Kenton Lee, Rich Cartney, Megan Harrison and Kelly Gibbons.