COEUR d'ALENE - There was a lot of talk in Coeur d'Alene this week about the education reform referendums that Idaho voters will consider on Nov. 6.
Former state superintendent of public instruction Marilyn Howard spoke to about 70 people Monday evening at the Greenbriar Inn, an event hosted by Womenspeak North Idaho.
On Friday, Idaho first lady Lori Otter spoke to a crowd of several hundred who attended the Kootenai County Republican Women Federated's Women in Red luncheon at the Best Western Coeur d'Alene Inn.
The referendums - Propositions 1, 2 and 3 - seek to repeal the comprehensive package of education reforms passed into state law following legislative approval in 2011. The so-called Students Come First laws limit the bargaining powers of teachers unions, require contract negotiations be held in public, call for merit pay for teachers, advances in technology including laptops for all high school students and teachers, and make online course credit a high school graduation requirement.
Otter, whose husband Gov. Butch Otter worked with Idaho schools chief Tom Luna to develop and promote the education reform laws, and Howard, Luna's predecessor, see things very differently when it comes to the referendums.
"There's nothing in these laws that as a teacher in a building, that I disagree with," Otter said to the Republican group on Friday.
Otter taught health and physical education and coached basketball and volleyball at the middle and high school levels for 12 years. She earned a master's degree in 2004 and worked for two years as an elementary principal in the Meridian School District.
She has been touring the state in recent weeks, meeting with various groups to talk about her support for keeping the education reform laws in place. She also did a radio spot for the Yes for Idaho Education campaign.
Otter said she's not out speaking for the reforms to tout her husband's position. She said she's doing it because she's an educator who personally believes strongly that the reforms are needed. Prop 1 phases out teacher tenure and limits negotiated agreements between teachers and school boards. Otter said it eliminates the practice of keeping ineffective teachers simply because they have seniority.
"I was a teacher. I was never in the union," Otter said.
She said she never wanted her money to go to issues supported by the National Education Association, and never thought it was necessary to be in the union simply to have legal assistance in the event of some liability.
The reform laws call for teacher evaluations by parents and administrators, something Otter said she supports because it gets principals looking hard at what's happening in their schools.
Regarding pay for performance, Otter said it's based on academic growth, not proficiency. There are standards set by the state and standards set by local school boards.
Prop 3 funds laptops for all high school students and teachers and requires an online course credit for high school graduation.
Repealing the laws will result in the elimination of local control for school boards, Otter said. There will be no laptops.
"If they fail, you go back to early retirement bonuses; you go back to seniority; you go back to tenure ... and the unions are in charge," Otter said.
There are teachers that support the referendums, she said.
"Because there's nothing worse than being in a building and knowing there are people who aren't doing their job," Otter said.
Marilyn Howard says she's voting no on all three propositions.
"I want to make a statement that says, 'Stop it.' Basically, I think we're hurting kids," she said.
Howard was Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction from January 1999 to December 2006. She holds a doctorate in curriculum and instructional science, and spent many years in the classroom.
Education reform proponents are talking about what Idaho students could have, rather than what students actually have or don't have.
"You know a district in the Treasure Valley this week asked for donations of reams of paper," Howard said.
Regarding pay for performance, Howard said that's not really what the state's plan is.
"This is how did the kids in the school do on tests," Howard said. "Performance on tests is not necessarily a reflection of good teaching, the kind of teaching I would call good teaching. Maybe it was all rote, force-fed, the kinds of facts you need to pass the test."
Flexible thinking and practical application aren't being measured on the standardized tests, she said, and there are drawbacks to using whole school rankings to determine if teachers should be awarded merit compensation.
"If a school does well, we could have a highly ineffective teacher getting a bonus ... and maybe the student did well because it didn't have limited English proficient students, it didn't have a high percentage of poverty and maybe it didn't have students with disabilities," Howard said.
Those groups of students are known to often fail to reach proficiency benchmarks or achieve academic growth, Howard said, and she is concerned about them, because it is through no fault of their own.
"I want kids to have hope, and honestly, when little kids walk across the threshold of the school, I don't want them to be seen as the enemy, the kid who's going to keep the teacher from getting a bonus," Howard said.
The state Department of Education should wait to put a pay for performance plan in place, she said. There are many other critical issues that need to be addressed first.
Public education uniformity is at risk in Idaho, Howard said, because school districts have to rely on local tax levies and districts have different populations and varying levels of support.
"Just bringing a computer into that rural area, isn't going to bridge that gap," Howard said. "The reality is, schools were already doing a huge amount of integration of technology. They have been for years."
Previous to the Students Come First legislation, Idaho schools were already offering online education through Idaho Digital Learning Academy, Howard said. IDLA, an online, for-credit school, was created by the Legislature in 2002. Howard said it was developed by Idaho educators who are its teachers as well.
"This is being dismissed, and they actually have reduced the budget for that school by $3.7 million," Howard said.
She said wherever she is, she hears from people from all age groups who are unhappy with what's happening in education now in Idaho.
"I feel that the people we depend on to do the right thing for us, have not been doing the right thing, and they're not owning up," Howard said.
She said the Legislature needs to look at the total taxing structure and make some big changes. Howard suggests they look specifically, and analyze the numerous exemptions that remove tax revenues from the state coffers.
"Nobody's even looking at that," Howard said.
Hamilton, Seddon endorse position
Coeur d'Alene school board trustees Tom Hamilton and Ann Seddon announced this week that they support the Idaho School Boards Association's position to vote yes on Proposition 1. The education referendum, one of three on the Nov. 6 ballot, asks voters if they approve or reject legislation that phases out teacher tenure and limits collective bargaining to salaries and benefits.
The ISBA is not taking a position on the other two propositions. Hamilton and Seddon said their positions on this are their own. The Coeur d'Alene school board has not taken a stance on any of the education reform referendums.