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Luna's Smoother Sail 

New schools chief edits predecessor's budget

When retired public schools chief Marilyn Howard made her first speech under the rotunda in the 1999 Legislative session, she worked from the public schools budget that Anne Fox had left on her way out the door. (Presumably without Fox's creationism and hooked-on-phonics antics.) Howard's final K-12 budget, prepared late last year, still sits on the State Department of Education's Web site.

But educators are under no illusion that new state Superintendent Tom Luna will use it as a cheat sheet when he stands before the budget committee this week.

"It appears that the budget request that comes from the new superintendent will probably be more consistent with the disposition of the Legislature and that of the new governor," said Boise School District Superintendent Stan Olson.

Officials at the State Board of Education and in the governor's office agreed. Karen McGee, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's education adviser, said the governor's and school chief's budget proposals will be closer than usual.

"Usually it's a hundred million dollars apart," said McGee, who just stepped down from the State Ed Board to work for Otter.

Howard, a Democrat, asked the Legislature for $1.45 billion dollars in general fund money for schools last year, about $90 million more than Otter's recommendation.

Otter has proposed a modest increase in the budget and generously allowed that public schools, along with public safety, are still proper functions for state government.

"The highest priority of our state budget always has been and continues to be education. Along with public safety, it is among the truly proper roles of our state government," said Otter in his State of the State speech.

Luna, a Republican businessman who came to education through the Nampa School Board, not the classroom, will include some of Howard's program ideas in his budget proposal. These include teacher training for gifted and talented students, and money for a new math initiative, a department spokeswoman said.

"Superintendent Luna did evaluate Dr. Howard's budget," said education department spokeswoman Melissa McGrath, a former Idaho Statesman business reporter.

At press time, Luna's budget was not available and he declined to discuss specifics. But soon after Otter's State of the State speech Luna released a statement commending the governor's plans for education.

Otter recommended a 5 percent increase, in line with his proposal for other state employees. But his budget includes no increased funding for technology, professional development, gifted-and-talented programs or the proposed math initiative.

"If the Legislature decides that they want to add more into any of those categories it's going to come out of that 5 percent," said Idaho Education Association president Sherri Wood.

But bigger questions for education in Idaho remain. Call the teacher's union and ask to be put on hold. You will hear an actor's voice decrying the sorry state of Idaho's schools: not enough text books, parents asked to buy paper, large classes.

"The needs for public school students are far greater than what's being proposed here," Wood said. The teachers put their priorities for more school funding to voters in November in the form of Proposition 1. The ballot measure was soundly defeated, after considerable politicking and a one-day special session of the Legislature. After that defeat, teachers are glad for a seat at the table.

"There seems to be an atmosphere right now to collaborate and to work together," Wood said optimistically.

In that vein, folks at all levels of Idaho's school system have been meeting under the auspices of the State Board of Education. They have had two closed-door meetings with teachers, administrators, school board members, state board members and a brief appearance by Luna.

But Luna, who has two former state board officials now working in his department and who was no stranger to the state board himself, having been an enthusiastic player in the development of Idaho's schooling standards and testing regimes, has broad support with the state board. He worked with McGee, now in the governor's office, to promote the standards and accountability movement.

The two are of similar ideological bent on many fronts. McGee has put up a picture of Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat behind her new desk. Luna got an elementary school in Nampa named after the late president.

School reform in Idaho proceeded largely unchallenged over the last decade and with Howard's lone dissenting voice now absent, it appears that Idaho students can expect even more testing, less curricular diversity and teachers more and more hamstrung by state standards. The same process has been foisted on schools across the country through No Child Left Behind, but it has been quite enthusiastically received here.

It appears no Idahoans who find this antithetical to American education are left standing. Democrats in the Legislature have promised to put forth an alternative budget for public schools this year, but have little chance of success against a united front from the board, the ed department and Otter.

Otter made perfunctory mention of schools in his opening speech to lawmakers. It was not good enough for Jim Lewis, chief of Blaine County schools and head of the School Superintendents Association.

"I understand that the governor is new and we've got to give him some time to come abreast of the issues," Lewis said.

But the brand-new governors in Alaska, Michigan and Florida put a bit more of their agenda setting State of the State time into public education, Lewis noted.

"All of them are brand new," Lewis said, "and yet they understood and spoke to the fact that K-12 education was their number one priority and they understood that K-12 education and the kids of their state were the greatest resource that they had."

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