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Students must come first

Guest Opinion
by Bob Shillingstad
Coeur d’Alene Press
October 8, 2012

We will all be faced with a deciding vote on the first steps of education reform in November and it is important that everyone understand what is proposed and what is at stake. Idahoans will vote on three referenda aimed at repealing what may be one of the most sweeping education reforms in the country.

First, understand the problem. A report released a few months ago by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce ranked Idaho as one of the four worst states in terms of the percentage of students who enroll and complete a four-year degree. Jeanne Allen, president of the D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, lays out the case like this:

“In states like this, the assumption is all is well. The reality is they’ve simply been going through the motions for years, and the result is a kind of Third World education status.”

Here is a summary of what education reform under “Students Come First” does:

* Aims to change our culture by getting control over costs and elevating achievement. Thus the so-called Luna laws now restrict collective bargaining to salary and benefits, phases out tenure and force teacher contract negotiations out in the open. They also eliminate a practice that across America operates largely to protect bad teachers and keep good ones out of the classroom: the last hired, first fired system of seniority.

* The other two prongs of Students Come First deal mostly with quality. New merit pay provisions mean that teachers can earn up to $8,000 a year extra for serving in hard to fill positions or helping their schools boost student achievement. The technology part has to do with ensuring that students and teachers in any part of Idaho have access to the best instruction available.

The teachers’ union is fighting all of this but rather than trying to answer the provisions of quality in the classroom they are focusing on the fact that Idaho will provide secondary students with a laptop computer and offer a variety of online classes. Listen to what Juan Williams (a popular Democratic pundit) has to say in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial about technology in the classroom.

Mr. Williams describes Mooresville, North Carolina this way: “The district ranked 100 out of 115 school districts in North Carolina on per pupil spending. But in the last 10 years, its test scores have pushed it from a middling rank among North Carolina’s school districts to a tie for second place. Three years ago, 73 percent of Mooresville’s students tested as proficient in math, reading and science. Today 89 percent are proficient in those subjects.

“The big change in Mooresville is that their textbooks, notes, learning materials and assignments are computerized, allowing teachers and parents to track their progress in real time. If a student is struggling, their computer-learning program can be adjusted to meet their needs and get them up to speed. And the best students no longer wait on slow students to catch up. Top students are constantly pushed to their limits by new curricular material on their laptops.”

Superintendent Mark Edwards says, “Our teachers are better informed, our parents are better informed, and our students are understanding what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.” He notes, by the way, that digital learning hasn’t increased the costs.

A recent article co-authored by Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, and Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, targeted this issue in a very clear challenge. They stated in part, “In the past two decades technology has revolutionized the way Americans communicate, get news, socialize and conduct business. But technology has yet to transform our classrooms. At its full potential, technology could personalize and accelerate instruction for students at all educational levels. And it could provide equitable access to a world class education for millions of students stuck attending substandard schools in cities, remote rural regions, and tribal reservations. Other countries are far ahead of us in creating 21st century classrooms.”

The unions are not giving up. They are trying to scare parents and voters with warnings about wasted money on technology, larger class size, school safety, whatever they think will work on the emotions. We’ve seen this script before. As with other public sector unions, the Idaho Education Association offers no real alternative. At a time when Idaho’s education budgets are being cut for lack of revenues, the union answer is always the same: more money for more of the same.

Mr. Luna and the Legislature have answered. Idaho cannot afford more of the same. In November vote YES on the three propositions. Let’s turn failure in our schools into more local control and success.

Bob Shillingstad is a Hayden resident who taught for 13 years in public schools.

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