From the transcript of a November 12 reporter session with Idaho Superintendent of Pubblic Instruction Tom Luna, whose 2011 school legislation was defeated at the polls on November 6.
Q: It’s been six days now. What is your assessment of the next step? What reforms might you look at with the Legislature?
I think it’s important that education reform doesn’t stop. We just had a 22-month discussion about education in Idaho at a level of detail that we’ve never had before, and I think that that, if anything, has been very productive. People around the water cooler and the dinner table have had conversations about education reform, so I think the last thing that anyone wants to see is an end to education reform in Idaho. I think it’s critical that we work together and identify parts of the reform legislation that have support from all legislative stakeholders—ones that are easy to move forward in this next legislative session. What those are I don’t know just yet. I think you heard during the campaign that there were parts of these laws that were agreeable to both sides, but there were also parts that were disagreeable obviously to the “Vote No” campaign and to the electorate. Again, I think that we have to take advantage of the conversation we have had over the last two years in Idaho. We need to continue that conversation, and we need to make sure that conversation leads to meaningful reform in our schools.
Q: The “Vote No” campaign has said that it is willing to reach out and open a dialogue with you and other members of your administration. Has that happened?
Yes, I’ve had a number of meetings with stakeholders. Unfortunately, Penni Cyr and Robin Nettinga, the leaders of the IEA, have been gone. They get back tonight; I leave tomorrow morning. So we’re going to have a phone conversation. But there have been other conversations already with stakeholders in person and over the phone with the IEA. We will sit down and meet with them. We did before, and we will continue to do that going forward. It’s important that we do that in a collaborative way, and we will.
Q: Superintendent, do you have any regrets about this entire process and how you’ve handled it?
Well, those are two questions. Let me address the second part of your question. There are some things I wish I had done differently. Particularly, I regret that I used the phrase “union thuggery.” Just some background: there was a 48-hour period of time where some incidences happened. My vehicle was vandalized. I was interrupted during a live TV interview by someone who was unhappy, and if someone hadn’t gotten in the middle of that, I don’t know how that would have played out. And then a gentleman who identified himself as a teacher showed up at my mom’s house, who was a recent widow, to give her a piece of his mind. I think I referred to that as “union thuggery” or “union tactics.” I wish I wouldn’t have used that phrase because obviously it was used over and over and over. I can’t imagine a son not being concerned about his mom in that kind of a circumstance, but that’s one time when I wish I had been maybe a little bit more measured in how I responded to that incident.
I’ll give you some background, so I’m sure you’ll have plenty of opportunities to play Monday-morning quarterback, but hindsight is 20/20. In hindsight, we can all think of things that we would have done differently.
When we ran these pieces of legislation, I never anticipated that we would end up in a referendum type of situation. When you look at these bills, each is very complex. So, it’s easy to identify one or two things in a very complex piece of legislation and focus on that and run a campaign based on one or two things that you are not happy with in a particular piece of legislation.
Q: Are you saying that you wish the bills themselves had been simpler.
Well, again, you’re asking me to play Monday-morning quarterback. I try to avoid that because I am looking forward.
Q: When you say that opponents focused on one or two things, are you suggesting that because of the campaign that was run, voters didn’t necessarily understand…?
No, the same people who voted down these laws elected me to this position twice. So, I can’t criticize them for turning down these laws and then congratulate them for making the right choice when they elected me. I have full confidence in Idahoans educating themselves and then making a decision based on the information that they’ve gathered. So, I’m not saying that at all. What I am saying is that if we knew this was going to a referendum, then maybe rather than three bills there should have been a couple dozen bills, and we should have treated each of these things separately so they could have been weighed on their own merits. And maybe that’s the process going forward. I don’t know because those conversations are still happening.
With a referendum, it’s easy to target just one or two parts of each law. I think the way it was described to me was that each of these three laws was like a separate movie in a trilogy. Each movie had six different scenes, and each scene had four different parts. So it was just very complex.
Q: When the HP contract was announced, several of us asked what would happen to the contract. At the time, your comment was, “Well, the train has already left the station.” Did this really take you by surprise—the voter rejection of the propositions?
No, not on Proposition 3. I am just being brutally honest with you. We knew going into Election Day that Proposition 3 was going to be very difficult to carry. And then, of course, all three of them were handily beaten. But, when it came to Proposition 3, I assume that our struggle was that we were able to implement Propositions 1 and 2 but not Proposition 3. Districts were able to negotiate for two years under the collective bargaining components of Proposition 1. We had pay-for-performance that had operated in our schools for a year under Proposition 2, and eight out of ten teachers will be receiving a bonus this year as a result of that. Proposition 3 was something where implementation really was to begin next year. I really believe that if our schools had received the laptops, and that people saw the benefit of that, it would have changed people’s impression of Proposition 3. I think that the fact that we were not able to implement it made it a heavier lift.
To the question of whether we should have waited to make the HP announcement, I don’t agree with that. I know there were some people who even thought, once we had an agreement, that we should wait. But, I think that voters deserved to have all of that information as soon as we knew it so they could vote with all the information we had having been made available in a very transparent way. I can’t imagine knowing that we had that contract agreement in place, letting people vote, and then days afterwards saying, “Oh, by the way, we reached an agreement with HP two weeks before the election and didn’t bother to tell you.” We wanted to be very transparent and let voters know what the contract was and who the contract was with and the details of it.
Q: There was a perception that the timing of the announcement was meant to leverage the outcome of the vote in favor of the propositions.
Well, how’d that work out (laughs)? We could have sat on that information, but that’s not the right thing to do when you are dealing with taxpayer money. So, we put the information out there and tried to answer questions that came up. I understand that some people thought this was some way to gain leverage, but again, that wasn’t our intent, and it clearly wouldn’t have worked had it been our intent.
Q: I think we all know that the Students Come First laws, however affectionately or otherwise, were labeled the “Luna Laws.” With all due respect, you don’t introduce legislation into the legislature. You don’t vote on anything in the legislature. You don’t sign anything into law. I think more realistically they were as much the “Otter Laws” as they were anything. With that said, looking forward, have you communicated with the Governor? Where is Governor Otter in terms of looking forward in education?
Well, “Otter Laws” doesn’t flow as well (laughs). I’ve had a number of conversations with the Governor, and we both agree that we need to take advantage of this opportunity that has presented itself—this conversation that has been had about education reform. I never ran into one person who said they were voting “no” because they didn’t think we should reform our schools. They had specific issues with certain parts of the law. I ran into a lot of people who were splitting their votes. I ran into a lot of people who said, “I like this about Proposition 1, but I struggle with this part.” So, I didn’t hear from anyone who said, “Let’s go back to the system we had before.” We’ll get everybody around the table, have conversations to identify the things that we all agree on that were in the different propositions, move forward together with legislation that would restore those parts of the bill, and then work together to find common ground on areas where we do not agree.
Q: Do you anticipate the Governor being involved in that process?
Yes, I do. I think the Governor will continue to play a lead role. If you look at other states that have gone through this process, it’s similar to what we are going through in Idaho. There are steps forward. There are bumps in the road. There are times when you have to have a process check and a reality check. But every one of those states has had a governor, whether it’s Tim Pawlenty or Jeb Bush, who continued to provide the leadership and really the expectation that we have to do these things and then used that pulpit to encourage the citizens and the legislature to respond.
Q: Indiana just unelected their Superintendent last week. Are there lessons to be learned from that for Idaho?
Well, I am good friends with Tony Bennett. I am good friends with a number of education leaders across the state. What happened in Idaho really happened all across the country, where education reform was defeated on many different fronts, or, at least, stalled on many different fronts. And what happened in Indiana is just another example. It happened in South Dakota. I don’t believe it means “stop.” I think what it means is that there are forces in play that you have to recognize and you have to engage with in order to get the water to the end of the row.Share on Facebook