(Note: This is the third installment in a three-part interview with Lt. Gov. Brad Little.)
Although the 2012 Idaho Legislature adjourned sine die on March 29, an undercurrent during this year’s session was last year’s Legislature, specifically the Otter administration and Tom Luna, the superintendent of public instruction, given credit and blame for pushing through comprehensive education reforms, commonly known as Students Come First.
The public outcry against the reforms insisted the reforms were not reforms at all; they were attacks on public education and teachers themselves. To that end, the three major reform bills spurred a statewide referendum effort resulting in all three measures going to the voters this November for Idahoans to vote to nullify or approve the new education plan.
In 2011, the reform package consisted of three reform bills, Senate Bill 1108, Senate Bill 1110 and Senate Bill 1184. In sum:
– Senate Bill 1108 reformed contracts and negotiations between teachers and local districts, effectively getting rid of tenure.
– Senate Bill 1110 dealt with the reform’s pay-for-performance plan, which rewards teachers and districts based on how well their students perform.
– Senate Bill 1184 requires students to take online classes and become comfortable with using technology in the classroom.
Lt. Gov. Brad Little is optimistic some of the backlash against the reforms was blunted to some degree by the 2012 Legislature restoring a portion of the funding for education, including monies for teacher salaries. “The fact that the Legislature and the superintendent advocated for backfilling the money that was gone, and they got the promised pay raises in the salary-based apportionment, significantly diluted the concern about the Students Come First,” hopes Little.
The governor and Luna remain committed to the education reforms, though they split on use of some funds to increase teacher pay. Luna and the Legislature supported raises, Otter preferred to tie any raises to the state of the economy as the fiscal year progresses.
Nonetheless, the Idaho Education Association and a number of local interest groups throughout the state have said they will be working on behalf of the referendums, though if there is going to be an organized effort against the reforms, it has not surfaced.
Little says that granting local school boards more power, which was in the reform package, should also neutralize some of the outcry. “It empowered local school boards, and if the school boards do the right thing, I think the concern of the population and the patrons of the school districts will go down.”
The lieutenant governor feels the state’s population has a strong belief in public schools and, correspondingly, may worry that good teachers will be lost in the reform shuffle. He believes that people aren’t upset about letting a teacher go who isn’t doing a good job, but rather that good teachers will be let go for other reasons. “What people are concerned about is that good teachers will be let go to hire a new football coach or do something like that, and if the school boards do the right thing, I think a lot of the concern about that part of Students Come First will go way down.”
There was some tidying up to do with the reform package during the 2012 session, as is always the case with something that big, said Little. “There were, I think, three or four bills that were necessary to fix some of the problems that arose in Students Come First as school districts and the state Department of Education found there were problems. That’s always the case whenever you have a comprehensive rewrite of state code” as was the case with the education reforms.
The acrimony that accompanied the reform package during the 2011 session and the shifting and reduction in some funding for public education last year was absent this year, largely because the state had more revenue to work with in 2012 than in 2011. The state Department of Education says the K-12 budget in the coming fiscal year is nearly $56 million higher than in 2011, or about a 4.6 percent increase.
Little is hopeful that there is now enough understanding of the intent of the reforms combined with more money allocated for education to pass the voters’ scrutiny come November.