Idaho lawmakers move public school reforms forward

BOISE, Idaho (AP) – Lawmakers started to weigh in on a plan to overhaul Idaho’s public schools, moving the legislation forward despite strong opposition from the state teachers union and other groups. Republicans on the Senate Education Committee, where the reforms were introduced this month, approved the legislation Thursday after public schools chief Tom Luna warned the system would collapse if they didn’t restructure how Idaho’s scarce education dollars are spent. The three bills now go to the full Senate. The sweeping overhaul would introduce merit pay and eliminate tenure for new teachers while expanding online courses and increasing class sizes to help pay for the reforms, which would eliminate 770 teaching positions. The union argues it will gut teacher rights, while the Idaho Parent-Teacher Association raised concerns over class size increases. The legislation was reworked in the Idaho Senate committee amid opposition from parents, teachers and some lawmakers. Luna cut his plan to require students take eight online courses in half and made other changes, clarifying that schools don’t have to increase classroom sizes – they could lower teacher pay instead to help pay for the reforms. While the changes to the legislation alleviated some lawmaker concerns, they did little to appease the state teachers union. “From the beginning, the Luna plan’s fatal flaw has been the lack of stakeholder involvement,” said Idaho Education Association President Sherri Wood. The governor’s education adviser, Roger Brown, countered that many ideas in the Republican-backed legislation have been batted around for years and implemented in other states. The reforms, which were introduced with backing from Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, are not as extreme as some critics of the overhaul have suggested, Brown said. “There’s nothing radical about the three bills in front of you today,” Brown said. Sen. John Andreason, of Boise, was the only Republican to join the two Democrats on the committee in voting against all three bills. Andreason pleaded for a few more days to work on the legislation to address some of the problems his constituents have highlighted. Andreason pointed out that his district includes the Boise and Meridian school districts, which hold roughly half of the students in Idaho’s public education system. “I’ve received over 1,400 emails. Ninety percent were against this plan,” Andreason said. “I’m trying to save this plan.” Sen. Mitch Toryanski, also a Boise Republican, broke GOP ranks on one of the bills and voted against the plan that would arm students with laptops while increasing classroom sizes. “Once in a while a leader has to glance over his shoulder and make sure the people are behind him,” Toryanski said. Republicans who backed all three bills noted the committee unprecedented level of public testimony on the plan and that while there were some concerns, they had been convinced the current system was unsustainable and the proposed overhaul needed to go before more lawmakers. “This is the first step, but a very important step,” Luna said.

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