What next for ed reform?

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COEUR d'ALENE - Now that Idaho voters have given Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's education reform initiatives the boot, what's next?

Top administrators from Kootenai County's three largest school districts say it's unclear, while teachers say they're eager to move forward toward finding reform solutions that will increase teacher effectiveness and improve student outcomes.

"At this point, we have not received any direction from the state on any of this," said Coeur d'Alene Superintendent Hazel Bauman.

Bauman said the Idaho School Boards Association is advising districts to refrain from making any decisions before Nov. 21, the date the election results will be certified and the so-called Students Come First laws are officially repealed.

"We will endeavor to work collaboratively with the various constituent groups to interpret and implement the new laws of the land," Bauman said.

The education reforms on Tuesday's ballot were split into three propositions mirroring the legislation passed into law in 2011. An initiative tied to a plan to spend $182 million on laptops for all high school students fared the worst, with just a third of Idaho voters in favor of keeping that legislation in place. Voters also rejected a law that limits teachers' collective bargaining rights, and legislation that institutes a bonus pay plan for teachers.

"I understand Idahoans have expressed concerns, yet I do not believe any Idahoan wants to go back to the status quo system we had two years ago," wrote Luna, in a prepared statement released Wednesday. "I am as committed as anyone to finding a way to make this happen. We must find a way because our children's future is at stake."

Carrie Scozzaro, an art teacher at Timberlake High School in Spirit Lake and past president of the Lakeland Education Association, that district's local arm of the teachers union, told The Press she would like to see students, teachers, administrators, parents, community leaders and the Legislature work together to find an effective way to move ahead.

"I don't think voters disagreed with the ideas behind the Propositions - keeping up with technology, retooling education finance, transparency and accountability - just the manner in which they were developed and the punitive, and in some cases, poorly planned context in which they were being implemented," Scozzaro said.

Tim Sanford, a music teacher at Lake City High School in Coeur d'Alene, is on an Education Excellence Task Force set up earlier this year by the Idaho Education Association, the state teachers union. The purpose of the panel of mainly current classroom teachers is to identify critical education priorities and recommend solutions that will strengthen teacher effectiveness and improve student learning.

"We know there are reforms needed. That was never the issue," Sanford said. "Students Come First was just not the right one."

The task force is in place, Sanford said, so teachers will be prepared to work with members of the Legislature and Luna "to come up with a reform that works to benefit the children of the state."

"We really need to satisfy those differences, because that's what we're here to do," Sanford said.

John Miller of the Associated Press reported Wednesday that the campaigns run by those favoring and opposing the education reforms were among the costliest ever seen in Idaho.

The National Education Association and its state affiliate spent about $4 million to defeat the measures, Miller reported, while Frank VanderSloot, owner of the Idaho Falls-based Melaleuca Inc., pumped about $1.5 million into the campaign to keep the education initiatives in place.

"Unfortunately, I think the Legislature and State Board of Education still see this (the election outcome) as a union thing, not realizing that non-union teachers, along with more than 60 percent of Idahoans voted against this," said Scozzaro. "I also expect there will be retaliatory legislation continuing in the vein of what we have already experienced and that won't change much until there's a wholesale, statewide change of culture."

In Kootenai County, 32,523 voters, 56 percent, rejected Proposition 1, related to teacher contracts and collective bargaining. Proposition 2, tied to merit pay, failed with 32,506 "no" votes, 55 percent. The laptop and online learning mandate legislation, Proposition 3, was rejected by 65 percent of voters.

Statewide, the measures were defeated by slightly higher margins.

Scozzaro said that no matter what happens next, school districts and teachers will continue doing their best to teach and take care of kids "regardless of the fallout."

"I would say that the biggest mistake that could be made moving forward would be for either side to misread what just happened," said Tom Taggart, business and operations manager for the Lakeland School District. "This is a time for all parties to come together and work on reforms with input from all groups."

Taggart noted that the election numbers reflect "bipartisan rejection" statewide, with many conservative voters casting votes for conservative candidates, and also voting no on the propositions.

"That isn't because of outside union money. That is because they disagreed with what the laws proposed," Taggart said.

The most pressing issue for school districts is the upcoming distribution of pay-for-performance bonuses mandated by the legislation. Districts are set to receive the merit pay funds from the state on Nov. 15 and distribute them to teachers on Dec. 15.

Post Falls Superintendent Jerry Keane said it's unclear whether school districts have the authority to actually distribute the money after Nov. 21, when the laws are expected to be officially null and void.

Last week, Luna told school district administrators and members of the media that the state department of education has been working with the attorney general's office for several months, and they are waiting for an official opinion on the legality of the merit pay distribution.

School officials from all three districts said it's unclear what impact the repeal of the legislation will have on negotiated teacher contracts.

"A great deal will depend on what the Legislature does next session," Taggart said.

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