BOISE -- After more than a dozen hours of testimony over three days, the last syllable was barely uttered before the House Education Committee approved the first two public school reform bills Thursday.
The bills now go to the full House, where they're likely to receive a welcome reception. That's the final hurdle before they go to the governor for his signature.
"This is an historic opportunity. It probably won't come around again in my time," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who had the final word before the committee took action.
Within 15 minutes, both bills passed by identical 13-5 votes.
Moscow Rep. Tom Trail and Lewiston Rep. Jeff Nesset joined three Democrats in opposing the measures. Rep. Paul Shepherd of Riggins and the other committee Republicans voted to move them forward.
One bill creates a pay-for-performance system intended to reward good teachers and administrators. The other changes state labor laws and gives local school districts greater control over contract negotiations.
"I'm very excited about the whole thing. This is something I've been waiting for," Shepherd said.
Five of his kids are school teachers. Rather than hurt them, he thinks these bills will improve respect for the profession.
Existing state laws "keep the status of education at a labor union level (in terms of public respect), rather than the high level it should occupy," Shepherd said. "That's why I'm so happy. I think this will raise the credibility of teachers in society."
The Idaho Education Association teachers union did not share that perspective. Association President Sherri Wood said Luna's labor reform bill "is the most egregious and mean-spirited attack on teachers Idaho has ever seen."
Trail raised a variety of concerns about the bills, including the potential for discouraging teacher recruitment and retention and the negative financial impact on rural school districts.
The labor bill would eliminate the 99 percent funding guarantee schools currently enjoy when they see unexpected decreases in student enrollment.
The Idaho Association of School Administrators and Idaho School Boards Association said that guarantee provides an important safety net for local districts.
Luna pointed to Idaho's 40 charter schools. They don't have the 99 percent guarantee, but still manage to get by, he said. They tend to be more careful in the spring, when they're offering employment contracts for the following school year, but regular school districts can learn to do the same.
Nesset said he was excited when he first heard the reform plan. It looked like an opportunity to reward good teachers and help leverage their skills with technology.
However, the lack of buy-in from all the education stakeholders ultimately caused him to vote against the bills. When he considered how something of this magnitude would have been handled during his time on the Lewiston City Council or in his job at D.A. Davidson, he felt the Legislature needed to slow it down a bit.
"We're all aware of what we need to do -- we need to become part of the desired vision. But until we do that, I'm really not comfortable voting for these (bills) as they stand," Nesset said. "Sometimes we need to take a step back. (The reform issue) has the attention of everybody. Let's create the shared vision with all the stakeholders who need to be here and make sure we're all going in the same direction."
The pay-for-performance plan comes with a $38 million annual price tag, although that wouldn't kick in until fiscal 2014.
Luna wanted to pay for the plan -- as well as increased classroom technology and other programs designed to improve student achievement -- by increasing student-teacher ratios 10 percent. That would reduce personnel costs by about $100 million per year.
That part of the reform plan, however, ran into problems in the Senate.
Spence may be contacted at bspencelmtribune.com or (208) 848-2274.
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