The following are prepared remarks as delivered by Idaho Education Association President Penni Cyr today to the IEA's 120th Delegate Assembly in Boise. 

Thank you. Thank you!  What a wonderful celebration! Please join me in thanking Sherri and Jim, Lyn, Bob, Gayle and the entire history task force; Jennifer Stevens, our amazing author; the members of the IEA choir and John McCrostie, their conductor…what a wonderful tribute to our association, to IEA’s history and to our future!

I am so excited that YOU are the first ones to see this book.This beautiful and powerful book details the struggles and triumphs educators have waged to bring excellence in public education to Idaho. It is such an important document for our members. I have long advocated for writing our history – at the local level as well as the state level. And I know everyone who reads this book will be empowered, encouraged and will find the determination to carry on as we face the threats to public education in Idaho together. 

We do stand on the shoulders of very great people … those who have fought long and hard through the years to make public education in Idaho the best it can be for our children and for those of us who teach them. It is our turn now to go forward, to proudly carry the torch lit by our fore-fathers and mothers and continue fighting for uniform, thorough, and free public schools as guaranteed by the Idaho Constitution for every child in our state.

The Idaho Education Association has been the professional organization for teachers in Idaho for 120 years and we are the only professional organization that stands up for educators’ interests and the interests of Idaho’s children.  IEA empowers its members to speak out for our students and our colleagues. IEA has and will always “fight for high quality and equal educational opportunities for all of Idaho’s children.”  And since the beginning of this association, the IEA has advocated for educators being treated as professionals.

We all know teaching and public education are political. This was never more clear than during the 2011 legislative session when sweeping education “reforms” were passed by the Idaho Legislature at the urging of Superintendent Luna … reforms that educators and parents and community members overwhelmingly opposed. 

While some of our colleagues would rather not have to deal with politics, politics are as much a fact of life for teachers now in the 21st century as they have always been. One of the many lessons we learn from our history is that the battle for quality public schools and teachers being regarded as professionals has always been political no matter who was governor or superintendent of schools. If our predecessors had not been willing to engage in the political process, we would not be here today. 

It is inescapable. Everything we do, from the supplies we purchase to how we configure our classrooms is done because of decisions made by the legislature and your local school board, and by school funding. Hundreds of you spent many evenings, afternoons, and weekends last spring calling and emailing legislators, coming to Boise to testify, planning and attending rallies and vigils and weekend meet-and-greets for lawmakers … because you care about public education and you care about the success of Idaho’s kids.

Even after the legislature passed the three incoherent, harmful education laws that take away teachers’ voices, base bonuses on standardized test scores, and start the privatization of public education, you continued to fight.  Last spring, our members and the public were more engaged than I’ve seen in the past 20 years … and together we gathered 75,000 signatures, almost twice as many as we needed, in 40 days, to put these laws to a vote of Idaho citizens … because we know they are certainly not good for kids and they aren’t good for educators either! 

Even the legislators know they screwed up. Legislators spent the 2012 session futilely scrambling to patch over the laws’ most glaring defects. Lawmakers called them “tweaks.”  At least 16 bills were introduced to attempt to clean up the mess made by the three bills. Again, at the risk of repeating myself, if legislators had listened last year to their constituents – the people of Idaho – they would not have been working so hard this year to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!

Despite all the tweaking, these laws represent the triumph of top-down government over local control.  They mandate how school boards will spend state education dollars.  They strip teachers’ voices from any discussion with their trustees and administrators about what is best for the students of their communities, and they tie pay-for-performance bonuses to test scores – tests that were never intended for such a purpose.

Even up to the last days of the 2012 legislative session, the contortions continued as lawmakers tried to “fix” the laws.  The “going home” deal included a bill that continues to fund bonuses before base salaries and technology before manageable class sizes.  Although it removed 2011’s mandated salary shifts and offered faster growth on the state’s salary schedule for teacher minimum salaries, it does nothing for experienced teachers and it starves the salary schedule by failing to increase the base. The statement of purpose for this bill makes its priorities plain: “…prior to funding increases for any other items within the Public Schools budget” the mandates from the education laws will be funded first. Let me be perfectly clear: This “last minute deal” mandates that NOTHING will be paid for … not transportation, not textbooks, not supplies, not gifted programs, not salaries … nothing, until the items mandated by last year’s bills are funded.

These laws and repeated budget cuts have sent class sizes in our schools to the roof and attempt to make a mockery out of the teaching profession by implying teachers can be replaced by computers. Teachers are leaving, and they are not just leaving Idaho. They are leaving our profession because they and their profession have been disrespected.  Many teachers are looking for new careers, not because they don’t care deeply for the children they teach, but because these demoralizing laws have taken the joy out of teaching and have debased the profession.

We just celebrated IEA’s 120th birthday, but this year may well become the most important year in the history of the Idaho Education Association. The battle we are facing is the most challenging battle our generation of members has ever faced. And make no mistake, the stakes are high.

Our opponents have a very focused and disciplined message.  They repeatedly tell the public that:

• “Schools are failing.”
• “Teachers are to blame.” 
• “Unions protect the status quo.”
• “Technology and “devices,” online education and canned curriculum is the answer.”
• “For-profit corporations “do” education better.”
• “Chaos will reign if the laws are repealed.”

But you know and I know that chaos is happening now, chaos created by the Luna laws and decreased funding for public education since 2009. Chaos is having 50 or 60 kids in a history class or 27 first graders in one room with or without an assistant. Chaos is kids traveling to and from school events by themselves, and districts increasingly requiring kids to “pay-to-play” sports or to take part in other school activities. Chaos is having our best and brightest educators “cherry-picked” to work in neighboring states and  young educators leaving for other careers where they will be respected and paid a professional wage. Chaos is 1,200 Idaho teachers leaving the profession for “personal reasons,” and chaos is the need for more and more of our communities to turn to taxing themselves rather than see their children’s education suffer as the state continually decreases public school funding.

Every child deserves a caring, competent teacher who has time to ensure they succeed.  Every child deserves a curriculum, delivered by highly qualified teachers, that challenges their thinking and moves them beyond rote learning, which is often what is offered by online course providers.

Unless we are advocates for our profession, we will continue to lose excellent teachers.  The fact of the matter is, we have a responsibility to diligently guard our profession as we do our children.  Our critics say we don’t want “reform,” but they are wrong. Since 1894, members of our association have fought for educational opportunities for all children, adequate funding for our public schools, and formalized, professional training and higher qualifications for teachers to “ensure that those who chose teaching as a career would be the best people to educate students.”  Even now as we fight what is wrong, we must continue to advocate for what is right! We need to take charge of our profession.  We need to OWN education reform in Idaho. We need to take back the word “reform” and put in the hands of teachers and education support professionals and parents and community members who know what every student needs to be successful.

As someone recently told me, “Even Muhammad Ali got knocked on his ass a couple times, but he never gave up.  He kept on fighting.” We can’t win every battle, but we can’t win any battles if we don’t keep on fighting.
I reject the notion that we will continually need to do more with less. It is our job to educate the public about why the legislature must invest in the priorities that build the foundation for student learning.

It is our job to continue to educate, activate, and engage the public and our members now to fight for a quality, public education for every child. We all need to tell our stories, to share what is happening in our schools, to show the chaos that exists because of funding cuts and ill-conceived “reform.” It is our job to educate the public about the importance of smaller class sizes, early childhood education, and the need for students to take courses in the arts and physical education and history and civics. It is our job to demand that our students have access to up-to-date textbooks and computers.

We know every child deserves highly qualified teachers, and our history shows us that is what members have demanded for the past 120 years.  We know these laws will not help Idaho attract and retain the best teachers to serve our children. Education IS NOT just another business; the education of our children should not be a master check list of skills … once taught, check it off! Our children’s futures are at stake. Idaho’s kids are not widgets meant to serve a profit-driven business model. They need and deserve talented teachers who can help them develop the collaboration and communication skills they will need to succeed face-to-face as well as online in the 21st century.

Thank you all for the deep respect and dedication you show to your students, to our profession, and to the IEA each and every day.  We all belong to the greatest and most important profession; the teaching profession creates all other professions. We cannot let others destroy the quality education system that members who came before us helped to build. 

Beginning today, we must engage our members and the public to defeat the “so-called” education reform laws passed last year.  This will be one of our greatest challenges, but our history confirms that we are up to the challenge!  We must work to educate everyone to vote NO on Propositions 1, 2, and 3 in November and repeal these laws. 

We have the capacity to achieve great results, and I look forward to unleashing our energy in the months ahead.  It’s time to get busy. We must unite in our purpose and immediately – today – re-engage in the work of organizing and motivating our members and building stronger and larger community coalitions with parents, grandparents, business owners, and community leaders who can help us bring real, meaningful education reform to Idaho in 2012 and beyond.

It’s the right thing to do for Idaho’s public schools and it is the right thing to do for our children.  As Dennis Van Roekel says and I believe too, I became an IEA member because the “union” gave me a voice and it helped me become a better teacher.  That is why I think we all, ultimately, came to the IEA…to be heard; to make a difference for our schools and our students; to professionalize our profession. 

Remember, as the Lorax says, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not.”

We cannot let our voices be silenced now … or ever!

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