An actual proposition fight

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From since a couple of months past the time the three school propositions – 1, 2 and 3 – aimed at overturning what have been called the “Luna laws” were developed and circulated, they looked like losers. I’ve written and said as much.

Today, not so much. In Idaho’s political climate, you couldn’t possibly call them a slam dunk for passage, but the route to repeal does look more realistic than even, say, a month ago.

The laws were passed, at the request of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, in the 2011 legislative session. They were sprung as a massive surprise, unmentioned in the preceding election campaign (Luna had never hinted what was ahead), for legislators as well as people in the state generally. They’ve become known for greatly reducing teacher collective bargaining ability, merit pay which could link to teaching to tests, and large-scale provision of laptop computers to students.

Jerry Evans, the four-term Republican SPI which retired in 1995 and one of the most knowledgeable Idahoans ever on the mechanics of the state’s education system, cited the impacts in a recent column opposing the laws as aimed at reducing the influence of the Idaho Education Association, “in effect trading teachers for computers” and prospectively “the base salary for all teachers may be further reduced.” (Don’t try arguing school budgeting with Evans; he knows more about that than you do.)

Still, in Idaho’s political climate, there’s a “so what’s your point?” element to the debate. The passion against the laws seemed to trend downward from the spring of 2011 through this summer, and that kind of passion can be hard to rebuild. The November election looks likely to draw out a lot of Republicans to vote in Idaho, and while not all Republicans supported the laws, most of Idaho’s Republican leadership did and does.

But something is afoot. Numbers from by the Associated Press (sourced from the Department of Education, which Luna runs) show that the number of Idaho teachers departing of their own volition, as opposed to layoffs or firings, increased in 2011 by more than 500 compared to the year before, and more than 1,000 more than the year before that – this in a bum economy that logically would have kept teachers hanging on to their jobs. Word of such a large trend may well have circulated around the state.

Have there been other changes on the ground? Based on the purely political evidence, you tend to think so. News stories about the slowness of laptop deliveries may have sunk in. There’s been an energetic campaign pushing the referenda which seems to have cohered only since mid-year, but maybe that has something to do with it too.

Debates over the issue, such as one a few weeks back featuring Luna and (in the opposition) state Representative Brian Cronin, have turned unexpectedly testy – an indicator that this isn’t a runaway issue. And then there’s the recent polling, some by the anti-law group but also from news media, which seems to show the laws failing.

Whether they will is still unclear. A lot depends, as ever, on who turns out to vote, and Idaho’s very conservative voters are likely to be there in full force. But in a way that didn’t look likely even a couple of months back, this seems to be developing into a real, live, serious battle.

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