Education is a huge topic in the United States this election year. In Idaho, reform is the topic of three referenda on the upcoming ballot.
Those referenda were the subject of today's City Club of Boise discussion, a debate between Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and outgoing Democratic State Rep. Brian Cronin of the Idaho Legislature, now Strategies 360 senior vice president and consultant to the Vote No campaign.
Luna spearheaded the Students Come First Reforms, which passed the Legislature in 2011. Cronin spoke in support of the Vote No initiative, which seeks to repeal Students Come First. Voters will have their say on whether to keep the reforms by voting for or against propositions 1, 2 and 3 on this year's ballot.
Those propositions address issues of collective bargaining for teachers, merit pay for teachers, which includes bonuses for performance, and incorporating technology and online education into the classroom.
The debate addressed those issues and many more, including the teachers' union's role in reform, Cronin's role in the Vote No campaign, alternatives to Luna's reforms, and the method by which they were devised.
Luna spoke often of the fact that schools had signed on early to receive one of the reform's more controversial components, laptops for every student within their schools.
"Eighty-five percent of Idaho schools have volunteered to be part of the first one-third to receive laptop devices for their students next year," said Luna. "That tells me that teachers, schools and students are excited about this opportunity. They know that these devices are not replacing teachers, or 85 percent of them would not have volunteered to be first."
Cronin responded to that point later in the debate, disagreeing with Luna's claim that the interest represented agreement with the programs.
"Because the budgets have been so scarce, the school districts are, of course, going to raise their hands any time the state is handing out money. That's a no-brainer," said Cronin. "That isn't necessarily an endorsement of this program."
Cronin said early on that the so-called "Luna laws" were designed not to change the way students are educated in Idaho, but to maintain a "bare bones" K-12 budget. He said a "mass exodus" of teachers has taken place since the reforms were put in place, and that Idaho's teachers left because of morale and mismanagement.
Cronin urged the audience to stop calling Students Come First education reform.
Luna disputed Cronin's numbers, stating that the number of individuals applying for certification to teach in the State of Idaho was up 25 percent, and that the number of teachers leaving the state was lower than Cronin's figures.
He maintained that technology's role in the classroom was crucial for all schools in the state, and said that currently, only some districts can afford the tools necessary to give children access to the Internet. He said Students Come First would turn every classroom into a computer lab.
"Today, when our kids go to school, that's when they have the least access to information and knowledge," said Luna.
But to that, Cronin responded:
"I don't know a single CEO in this state, a single small business owner who has said, 'You know, the problem with kids today is they just don't understand technology.'"
Cronin said that with no new funding source to pay for the technology, schools will be forced to find alternatives, such as supplemental school levies.
"Teachers will lose their jobs and class sizes will grow and/or taxpayers will end up paying twice as their property taxes continue to rise," said Cronin.
Voters will have their say on technology in the classroom, the collective bargaining rights of teachers, and how best to address funding education when they take to the ballot box in November.
City Club plans to make the audio of the debate available on its website, cityclubofboise.org..