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Race to Wisconsin 

Idaho needs to take after the Badger State and fight for its teachers.

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Idaho is winning the Race to the Bottom. When it comes to per-student spending in the public school system, Idaho ranks second-to-last in the country, according to the Census Bureau funding figures.

The national average is $10,259 per pupil per year; Idaho spends $6,931. Neighboring Washington spends $9,009 per pupil. Only Utah is behind Idaho. We used to be able to count on Mississippi to cushion our embarrassment. Mississippi has left us in the dust.

Another Idaho legislative session is halfway over, and it is clear that no efforts are going to be made to increase revenue for the schools, even though some low hanging fruit is still there for the plucking.

Added sin taxes on cigarettes and wine could bring in millions. Bed taxes on hotels and motels are an obvious source of dollars. The current 2 percent tax on a room in an Idaho hotel only provides dollars for advertising to attract more tourist heads to Idaho hotel pillows.

Fortunately, Idahoans still care about their kids’ education. A recent Boise State University survey of Idaho voters tells us that 53 percent of those surveyed are willing to add a penny to the sales tax to support the public schools.

But a surplus of ideology and a lack of political courage combine to discourage Idaho legislators from authoring bills to add more revenue for the kids’ schools. We don’t make any headway by continuing to complain about then-governor Jim Risch’s 2007 special legislative session that took maintenance and operation of school districts off the property tax and loaded it onto the state to pay. At the time, detractors warned that a recession might be a surprise in the future and, voilĂ , they were right.

So the Legislature has tossed the ball back to the local property taxpayer. Local school districts throughout the state are printing ballots asking their patrons to support supplemental levies. We must pass these levies, as there is no hope for adequate dollars from the Idaho Legislature. The revenue isn’t there, and it’s up to us to vote yes for the schools.

 

Meanwhile, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna’s three bills to up-end the way Idaho public schools function are deceitful time bombs, which have not had the benefit of the intense scrutiny that any proposal for such radical change deserves.

The three bills, under the slogan Students Come First, take steady aim at Idaho’s teachers, suggesting that teachers are unimportant and easily disposable. At the same time, the legislation assumes teachers are capable of teaching larger and larger classes.

How has it happened that here and across the country teachers have been turned from friends of the family into enemies? They get up and go to work every day to teach our children. They didn’t cause the economic crisis. Why should they be demonized? Why should they be put in the position where an angry parent could cause any one of them to lose his or her job?

Under Luna’s scheme, teachers’ hard-earned right to bargain collectively would be pared down to exclude subjects such as class size, preparation time or working conditions. In Luna’s proposal, only salary and benefits would be negotiable, and the general public would be able to sit in on negotiation sessions.

At a recent town meeting to assess Luna’s bills, teachers and parents criticized the Luna proposal that would get rid of 770 Idaho teachers in order to find enough funds in the budget to buy every 9th grade student a laptop computer.

High school students stood in line to speak at the Feb. 5 Coeur d’Alene Education Association meeting, with much passion — don’t trade our teachers away for laptops, was their basic message. “Teachers make us think.” “Teachers’ true passion is an important part of education.” “It would cause poor students to fail harder.”

One observant student pointed out with amusement, “All the students lined up to talk are opposed to the plan whose announced mission is to put students first.”

The crowd was not anti-computer or anti-change. The value of the Internet and the merit of online classes were clearly recognized. But students, teachers and parents alike emphasized the difference that caring, knowledgeable adults can impart to their students. No online transaction can match the interaction with a real live teacher.

 

The Idaho Education Association (IEA) is a special target of Luna’s union-busting Senate bill because it has traditionally been supported by Democratic candidates. As we’ve been seeing in Wisconsin over the past week, the governor and fellow Republicans are using the budget crisis as an excuse to reach an ideological goal — to cut down the power of the teachers’ union.

In my experience, the most effective advocate for improvement in Idaho’s public education has always been the Idaho Education Association. The push for smaller class sizes was led in the ’80s by Jim Shackelford, then executive director of IEA. The union supports more Democratic candidates than Republican because, my experience tells me, most Republican legislators do not care passionately about education.

The constituencies that have the most to win or lose from this legislation — students, teachers and parents — were not consulted in preparing these proposed changes.

It’s a top-down operation. It’s a Students Come Last, Teachers Goodbye, Idaho at the Bottom, sad kind of story. Let’s pull a Wisconsin and descend on Boise.

Mary Lou Reed is a former Idaho State Senator. She lives in Coeur d’Alene. Send comments [email protected]

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