Printed on: October 04, 2012

Luna, Rep. Cronin have tense debate over education reforms

By Dan Popkey
Idaho Statesman

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and state Rep. Brian Cronin agreed on one thing during their debate Tuesday on Propositions 1, 2 and 3: The stakes are huge.

Luna called the Nov. 6 vote to affirm his reform laws "by far the most important choice on education that many of us will make in our lifetime."

Rejecting the laws would mean violating the constitutional requirement for uniform and thorough schools because it would mean continued technological inequity, Luna said.

"I've visited hundreds of schools and thousands of classrooms, and we aren't offering a uniform system of public education in Idaho," Luna said. "Where children live determines their opportunities, not their abilities, not their desires.

"Sure, in Sun Valley or in a private school or in many schools here in the Treasure Valley, you see some impressive things going on with technology. But folks, that's not the reality in most of Idaho."

Cronin, D-Boise, said the 2011 laws don't deserve to be called "reform" and represent a "half-baked scheme" by Luna and his fellow Republicans who used the recession as an excuse to gut school funding.

"They turned a temporary fiscal crisis into permanent, long-term underfunding," Cronin said.

Idaho cut K-12 spending more than all but three states during the downturn and ranks 50th in per-pupil spending among the states and the District of Columbia.

Cronin called a mandate for laptops for every high-schooler an "entitlement" that, like a bonus plan for 80 percent of teachers, has no funding source.

"It's a shell game. It's a bait-and-switch con," he said.

The debate at the Boise City Club drew a sellout crowd of 450.

In his 12-minute opening, Luna said reform was necessary because Idaho students aren't keeping up. Although 92 percent graduate, only 38 percent begin a second year of college.

"A diploma should mean something," Luna said.

Laptops, he said, are vital.

"They become the textbook for every classroom, the math calculator, the research tool, the word processor for English. Teachers and students will no longer have to wait their turn for the computer lab because every classroom is a computer lab," Luna said.

Two other changes also are vital, he said: teacher bonuses to reward excellence, and cutting back the power of unions by eliminating tenure and limiting collective bargaining to pay and benefits.

In Cronin's opening 12 minutes, he blasted Luna for violating "every principle of lawmaking" in drafting the laws -- without consulting teachers -- during a two-month crush before the 2011 Legislature.

"It excluded the experts, the people who will carry out the laws and be most impacted by them," Cronin said.

He noted that the number of Idaho teachers leaving the profession had jumped from about 700 in 2010 to an estimated 1,900 in 2012.

Cronin called Luna's explanation -- some teachers may have left to join spouses who landed jobs in other states -- "stunningly illogical."

Luna said his explanation was "misconstrued" by the news media. He said personal reasons are the chief cause cited by departing teachers. Also, he said, new teacher applications are up 25 percent.

Cronin also said voters are backfilling budgets to keep classroom sizes down by approving a record $140 million in emergency and supplemental levies.