The shape of the schools debate to come?

The developing Idaho battle over the sweeping school proposal by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna (with Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter) continues running fierce. It has merited some further developent, and maybe a Sunday Idaho Statesman newspaper ad (right, an ad; consequently, no link we could find) will help give it that kick.

The plan puts together a number of pieces: Larger class sizes, more electronic and online courses, notebook computers for 9th graders, hundreds of fewer teachers in the state, a merit pay system (with larger pay for many teachers) and no tenure for those who remain. Whatever you think of it, it would amount to a huge shift in public education in the state and change its direction in major ways.

Since it was released the first week of the session, there’s been fierce blowback, focusing largely on the larger classroom sizes, the diminished numbers of teachers, the increasing reliance on electronic education, and criticism of the swap (in effect) of teachers for computers. Luna spent much of last week, evidently, on the defensive.

Two full-page ads in the Sunday paper give the debate another twist. One of those, not by much: The ad from the Idaho Falls manufacturer Melaleuca boiled down to a bash of the Idaho Education Association. The other, from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which likewise backed the Luna/Otter plan, was also limited but much more provocative.

The foundation has standing to comment in an informed way: It has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into public schools around Idaho on a wide range of projects – its core mission. It said:

We don’t take this stand in support of the Governor and the State Department’s education plan lightly. As a friend and supporter of education, we wade into this issue circumspectly, but we wade in nonetheless. The reform efforts we’ve funded have not worked, have had limited limited impact, or were never systemically adopted. At all levels and repeatedly, we’ve met with political indecision, territorialism, and a lack of political will. The historical focus on barriers, challenges, excuses and maintaining the status quo permeates our education system and stakeholder groups.

Our founder, Joe Albertson, was a visionary and a pioneer. He took risks and tried new things, but he also wasn’t afraid to change paths if it wasn’t working, and that required courage. Nothing can be improved without addressing the systemic issues confronting us, and Superintendent Luna and Governor Otter have shown the courage to tackle what will be a challenging process. …

We can either choose to support education reform, or the choice will be made for us when we no longer supply innovators or a workforce capable of fueling a vibrant, innovative and globally-focused Idaho economy.

Beyond that, the ad makes two other points. It notes that Idaho education is falling behind, including relative to other states, and isn’t educating students for high-end thinking a work (“In the future, most jobs will be either for highly skilled workers or the low-skilled working poor. Our system prepares students for the latter.”) And it notes that technology is useful in education (in a variety of ways), that “educator effectiveness and accountability are critical” and that simple measures of money spent are not the same thing as getting good results.

As far as they go, these points are unassailable. Your scribe was peripherally involved once (back in the early 90s) in a school reform effort different from this one, or from Albertson’s, but which also ran into the same kind of roadblocks this ad described. Those blocks to change are real and they have been intractable, for a very long time. And that’s not a good thing.

Here’s where we come up short: The diagnosis is on target, but is the prescription? Are we sure?

What the Albertson ad doesn’t say is why the Luna/Otter plan, in its specific details, is the only option to actual reform. Are there no others? The frustration of working around a hidebound school system must be very real, so is this a case of jumping at the first alternative (one with major political push) that presents itself? Why this plan, unaltered? The ad doesn’t really go there.

And are you really sure that, just because it’s never been tried before, that it will work? Wait a minute, there must be a problem with that concept …

There’s some very useful potential lurking around in all this, if Idaho legislators take the Luna/Otter plan and absorb the points made in the Albertson ad, and mesh that with the real and legitimate concerns (many from parents, who are a stakeholder group too) to develop an agenda for something innovative and system-altering, while lessening the education risk. Call this a real challenge of the legislative process. But that’s a good kind of challenge.

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