Idaho education firestorm sparks attempt at repeal

“By far, it’s been more positive,” Luna said.

Under the new laws, Idaho will also eliminate bonuses for teachers who retire early; phase out tenure; and make student achievement half of a teacher’s job evaluation while also allowing parents to weigh in as part of the changes Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed into law. The state will also ditch the “last hired, first fired” policy used in most school districts across the country for laying off educators, which means teachers with the most seniority could be in jeopardy.

Students starting in the ninth grade would eventually get laptops or other mobile computing devices, such as iPads, but teachers will get the devices first along with training on how to incorporate them into their classroom instruction. While Luna contends the technology upgrades are essential to better prepare students, his critics say the new laws will come with a grim trade-off–teacher job cuts–as more courses are taught online and money is shifted from salaries to help pay for the new technology.

Brian Smith, a high school government teacher in the northern Idaho lakeside town of Sandpoint, traveled hundreds of miles to Boise earlier this this year to testify against the changes while they were being debated in the Idaho Legislature.

“Teachers want to do their jobs and not worry about politics. But in this case, the politics will so affect their ability to do their jobs, they can’t help but get involved,” Smith said. “I think teachers feel as if our profession is being vilified.”

Luna contends the changes hand more power over to the locally elected school boards and remove barriers to awarding good teachers and getting rid of less effective teachers.

The Idaho Education Association is convinced voters will turn in droves against the education changes after experiencing their effects, which start this fall.

Aside from the new laws, one of their biggest criticisms is this: Luna didn’t mention his plans while running for his second term last year.

“Nobody knew this was coming,” said Michael Lanza, a parent and organizer of the petitions to repeal Luna’s efforts.

Another point of contention is Luna’s resume.

He received a bachelor’s degree from an online college and was president of an industrial truck scale company before he was elected to Idaho’s top education post. He has never been teacher or principal, but served on education boards and spent two years traveling around the country as an adviser to then-U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

Some critics have suggested he lifted parts of his plan from former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who became nationally known for closing schools and firing hundreds teachers deemed to be ineffective. Rhee stepped down last year

Luna, who titled his plan “Students Come First,” said he has never met Rhee but is a fan of what she accomplished.

“You have a group of people that think I have no business being involved in education,” Luna said, “And then when we put something that a majority of the Legislature approves and it becomes law in Idaho and then they think, well, he must have stolen it from somebody. Like I’m not capable of an original thought, or an original idea.”

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