COEUR d’ALENE — Rep. Bob Nonini said you couldn't find two states that are more different.
The Coeur d’Alene Republican was talking about Idaho and Washington, the two Northwest states represented on a discussion panel Sunday at The Coeur d’Alene Resort during the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Summer Institute.
The discussion addressing ways state education agencies can actively engage legislators attracted about 80 of the 210 people who attended the institute, many of them public officials who lead state departments of education from across the nation.
Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, Nonini, Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn and Dorn’s chief of staff, Ken Kanikeberg, were on the panel with the discussion moderated by Peter Zamora, director of federal relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers. Goedde is chair of the Idaho Senate Education Committee and Nonini chairs the House Education Committee.
“If you don’t have a relationship with the legislature, chances are you’re going to come up short in trying to accomplish the things you want to accomplish in education,” said Luna, who also serves as president of the council.
He said it is important for state education officials to be able to collaborate with legislators, not only bringing them ideas, but engaging lawmakers in the development of them.
Washington and Idaho aren’t the only states with vast differences when it comes to education budgets, politics and demographics. But despite those differences, most states are struggling with similar issues when it comes to education, especially regarding reform and finance.
Idaho's education reforms were passed into law following legislative approval in 2011. The so-called Students Come First laws restrict the the bargaining powers of teachers unions, call for merit pay for teachers, advances in technology including laptops for all high school students and teachers, and online course credit is now a graduation requirement.
“When it came time for bills to be passed, it was very strong legislators and very strong governors that were able to actually accomplish the kind of reform that is necessary,” Luna said.
In Washington, a bill that calls for teacher and principal evaluations, was passed into law this year. It is a contentious reform issue in that state, with the teachers union in opposition.
When asked how he works with the unions in his state, Dorn, former director of Washington's public school employees union, said: "The union thinks I'm probably too much of a reformer, and the reformers think I'm not enough of a reformer."
Dorn, a former legislator with Idaho roots — he was a principal in Bonners Ferry and attended the University of Idaho — said they try to sit down, negotiate and collaborate with the parties involved in education policy, but that's not always easy.
"It's working together, but obviously in our state, we are like the third or fourth highest unionized state in the United States, and so the union is a very strong voice, but we've been able to at least get along well enough that we can talk to teach other, but I think our state has figured out that you just can't say ‘No,’ to change," Dorn said.
Goedde said he hears from representatives of the teachers union, the school administrators association and the school board association.
"When we passed our reform, the education association, the teachers, were dead set against it, and until it passed, didn't even offer anything constructive about the bills," Goedde said.
Goedde said his frustration with the teachers union in Idaho is that they "fully support the status quo."
"The NEA has a plan for reform, yet our local union, our state union has not endorsed the NEA plan, and the NEA only did it because the AFT had a plan, and they're competing for members on a national basis," Goedde said. "The status quo is just not an option."
When asked how involved they are in the implementation of legislation, Nonini and Goedde each said they look out for it.
"I think it's important for us to stay actively engaged," Nonini said.
Goedde said that he's not an education professional, that he has to leave it to the education department staff and the state board of education to put legislation into play.
"But I think it's up to me as a legislator to make sure that what we passed is being implemented," Goedde said.
Stephen Bowen, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, told the Press he thinks all states are facing the need to do things differently in education.
“That’s why we’re here, picking each others’ brains,” he said.
Luna and Idaho education department staff visited Maine, Bowen said, to look at the way his state has implemented a policy that calls for a 1:1 ratio of laptops to students and teachers.
Education policy developers and lawmakers face push back, he said, from different groups, some with vested interests, others who are comfortable with the way things are.
"Some of them simply say, 'This is not the time,'" Bowen said.
Regardless of their stance, people respond strongly to education issues, he said.
"People get passionate. We're trying to change a system without a lot of resources," Bowen said.