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Blunt force

Ringo speaks
Representative Shirley Ringo speaks on the school bill/vidcap, IdahoPTV.org

Both the Idaho House vote and the debate on Senate Bill 1108, a key bill on the school proposal by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, were lopsided. The vote was 48-22 in favor, and the debate, like most of the preceding public comment, was mostly in opposition – and the debate in favor was mainly defensive, only sporadically addressing the virtues of the bill.

Chief sponsor Representative Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said in his closing remarks (as several other supporters did) that this bill was not intended as a teacher-bashing or Idaho Education Association-basing measure, and that he could look across the aisle at the Democrats – who were all opposed – and see that they simply didn’t believe that. (And attempts to rebut the idea that the bill was anti-teacher were the core of the pro-bill arguments.)

Nonini was doubtless right about that, and there are reasons for the skepticism.

The bill was pitched this way: “This legislation returns decision-making powers to locally elected school boards and creates a more professional and accountable work force.” That was the core of the argument Nonini did present.

The problem is that by dictating a new set of process and procedure, it effectively eliminates quite a bit of local decision-making.

It was also delivered by Luna with the argument that the state cannot afford public schools under the existing system. But Representative Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, rebutted that while state government is doing less and less of the job of funding public schools – the one job specifically assigned to it by the Idaho Constitution – local property taxpayers each year pick up the slack by approving increasingly onerous property tax override levies.

As to the teachers, the bill opponents delivered an extensive bill of goods, so much so that quite a few points went unaddressed by bill supporters.

The bill eliminates teacher collective bargaining on any topic be compensation. But Representative Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, pointed out that it even does away with that, as a matter of practice. The bill provides that if negotiations don’t yield an agreement by mid-June each year, the board can unilaterally impose its own decision on that subject. Since it has the easy hammer of running out the clock, negotiations would be a farce at most.

The case that it was aimed squarely at shattering the Idaho Education Association (traditionally a major backer of Democratic candidates), was – as Nonini’s protest absent countering specifics underlined – quite strong. And the critics, mostly though not exclusively Democrats, made the point.

Representative Brian Cronin: “I’ve come to the inevitable and irrefutable conclusion that this bill has nothing to do with student achievement … This bill intends to dismantle the Idaho Education Association and put teachers in their place, and make sure that teachers are silenced … Its purpose couldn’t be clearer to the naked eye.”

“Managing by fear and intimidation is ultimately a failing strategy,” Burgoyne said, and the bill will turn teachers into adversaries instead of partners in education.

Representative Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello, also pointed out that this bill emerges at the same time as a national effort to go after public employee collective bargaining (a point a couple of pro-bill Republicans actually alluded to as well): “I believe 1108 is Idaho’s reaction to this national movement.”

The strongest Republican argument, and it was quite clear, came from Representative Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls: “This is very mean-spirited bill … It turns teachers into powerless pawns in this political system.”

The bill has now cleared the legislature, and awaits only Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter‘s near-certain (he being one of the original backers of the proposal) signature.

UPDATE A comment from the ordinarily conservative Dave Oliveria at the Spokesman-Review‘s Huckleberries blog: “If Idahoans let the GOP get away with its trashing of public education, then all those polls that show that this state cherishes education are nonsense.” Two thoughts: 1. The new vote does not mark a change in direction for the Republicans in Idaho, just an extension of it. 2. There’s often a distinction between what one thinks, and what one is willing to go to bat for.

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