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Idaho education firestorm sparks attempt at repeal

More than 72,000 people signed each of three petitions to put the new Idaho laws to referendum votes next year.

Idaho carried out a sweeping overhaul of its public school system this year and stood out nationally amid a rancorous debate over education around the country. But the man who orchestrated the changes quickly learned that his landmark victory came with a price.

At the height of the firestorm over the new laws, vandals went to schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s home, spray-painted his truck and slashed the tires. He filed a police report after he said one angry activist went to his elderly mother’s house. The anger of hundreds of teachers, parents and students filled the halls of Idaho’s Capitol during hearings this spring.

And now, Luna’s critics want to repeal his education laws and kick him out of office.

“I was driving to work and somebody rolled down their window and flipped me off,” Luna said during an interview on a recent morning at his home in Nampa, a farming and manufacturing town about 20 miles west of the state capital in Boise.

At issue is a polarizing new education package that restricts teacher collective bargaining, eliminates tenure, and arms every high school student with a laptop while Luna also pushes to make online courses a requirement for them to graduate in Idaho. Those who loathe the overhaul, including many educators, say it will undermine teachers, increase class sizes and shift state taxpayer money to for-profit, out-of-state companies that will be tapped to provide online curriculum and laptops to students.

But to others, Luna is a hero who took on a tough issue and changed a system that was badly broken. They believe Idaho’s public schools, which lost roughly $200 million in funding during the economic downturn and face more cuts next year, are no longer sustainable and commend Luna for restructuring how the state’s scarce education dollars are spent.

“He really stuck his neck out. He’s not the most popular guy in the state by any means. I definitely think he’s courageous,” said Ethan Stroschein, an 18-year-old from American Falls who received death threats after he created a Facebook page in support of Luna’s efforts.

Nationwide, state legislatures have tackled education policy this year and triggered protests from teachers over proposed changes to their collective bargaining rights, and how they are evaluated and paid. But Idaho has made some of the most sweeping changes, according to the head of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C.

“The changes in Idaho haven’t received the attention they ought to,” said director Jack Jennings. “They’re dramatic changes, they’re even drastic.”

A group of parents and teachers who want to dump the education overhaul have met a June deadline to gather enough signatures to put three repeal measures on the November 2012 ballot. More than 72,000 people signed each of three petitions to put the new Idaho laws to referendum votes next year.

They also want to oust Luna through a recall effort in what is considered a longshot because of the large amount of signatures required for a statewide recall.

Jennings is unaware of any other state where critics have mounted a referendum campaign to ditch new education laws, though some legislatures are still in session, he said. In Wisconsin, a legal fight over a new law to strip collective bargaining rights from public workers–including teachers–has moved to the state Supreme Court after a judge struck it down.

As Luna sat at his dining room table after a morning of summer yard work recently, he seemed far from the furor that erupted earlier this year when critics stormed the Idaho Capitol to protest his plan to restrict education union bargaining rights, introduce teacher merit pay, and shift money from salaries to classroom technology.

He points out that for every opponent who flips him off, he can find another who thinks he did the right thing.

“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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