State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna today presented the budget for his “Students Come First – Three Pillars of a Customer-Driven Education System” to the gathered members of the Idaho Legislature's House and Senate Education Committees as well as the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. As he did last Wednesday, he described a plan that will boost Idaho class sizes; increase reliance on laptops and online courses; and slice the ranks of Idaho teachers, principals, and support personnel.
Calling the six-year plan “the new normal” for education funding in Idaho, Mr. Luna said that failure to pass the plan would mean further cuts to public education on top of the $200 million that’s already been slashed over the past two years. In Mr. Luna’s world, this new paradigm of larger classes and fewer teachers – mainly absorbed through attrition, he says – is the best we can do for our children. We just need to accept it and get used to it, starting now.
But in the real world, Idaho parents, grandparents, and small-business owners are telling a different story. In the past four years since a special session of the 2006 Idaho Legislature decreased state support for schools, local districts have increased their supplemental levies by $34.8 million dollars, or 44 percent. In every part of Idaho, in the depths of the worst recession in our lifetimes, Idahoans have voted – even with our pinched pocketbooks – to pay for quality schools.
To most Idahoans, quality schools mean that teachers have time to give each child one-on-one attention when it’s needed. To most Idahoans, quality schools mean classrooms where every child has a seat and adequate space to work before he or she has a laptop – and yet Mr. Luna wants to add two more children to each classroom (regardless of how crowded) and buy the laptops, too.
Then again, in Mr. Luna’s world – the world he’s referenced repeatedly in his presentations this past week – Idaho class sizes will merely be rising from 18.2 to 19.8. All across Idaho, parents and teachers are incredulous at this statistic, since most classes currently have far more students than that. House Education Chairman Bob Nonini (R-Coeur d’Alene) asked Mr. Luna what the worst-case scenarios are for class sizes, noting that he’s heard of classes that already have close to 30 students.
Most people now realize that the 18.2 number is misleading since it reflects a school’s population divided by all the certificated personnel in a school: the classroom teachers plus librarians, counselors, Title 1 specialists, special education teachers, English Language Learner teachers, and more. But today, Mr. Luna suggested that it’s a district’s problem if administrators don’t use each certificated employee as a classroom teacher. “If their districts chose, they could have their own classrooms,” he told reporters at a news conference late Tuesday morning. “It’s not smoke and mirrors; there’s no shifting of numbers.”
Maybe not, except real-world schools don’t work the way they seem to in Luna’s world.
Idaho parents and teachers had no input into most aspects of the Luna plan. But we can speak out about its real-world implications this Friday, when the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee holds a public hearing from 8 to 11 a.m. at the Capitol Auditorium. People who can’t attend that session – the majority of Idaho teachers included, since it’s a work day – can have their say by emailing comments and questions to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, as well as to our own state lawmakers. It’s especially important for people to contact members of the House and Senate Education committees, since they will have the first say on whatever bills come forward.
Today’s budget presentation showed that lawmakers have as many questions about the Luna plan as the rest of us do. They question how much class sizes will really grow. They question whether laptops and mandatory online classes for every Idaho high school student are the silver bullets that Mr. Luna makes them out to be. They wonder – as JFAC co-chair Dean Cameron (R-Rupert) said today – how “a thousand less people working helps the economy.”
Our children’s fate rests in our legislators’ hands. The more they hear from Idaho parents and teachers about how the Luna plan will or will not work for Idaho children living in the real world – not in bureaucrats’ offices in Boise – the better informed they’ll be on its potential impacts.