BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The campaign working to overturn Idaho's education reforms has launched a new radio advertisement calling a laptop program required under the plan an "unfunded mandate" that will require schools to spend millions of dollars they don't have.
But the ad's claim that the laptops are unfunded conflicts with the $2.5 million lawmakers set aside to pay for the devices this fall when they'll go to every high school teacher. Students will start getting the laptops in 2013 under the reforms by public schools chief Tom Luna.
The fight over the three laws in Luna's reform package is heating up with less than three months left before Idaho voters decide whether to keep or ditch the sweeping changes that limited collective bargaining, phased out teacher tenure, introduced merit pay and put more technology in the classroom while requiring students to take online classes.
The ad launched last Friday by Vote No on Propositions 1,2,3 says: "Tom Luna and the politicians in Boise are pushing Props 1, 2 and 3. Prop 3 is an unfunded mandate requiring schools spend millions of dollars they don't have on expensive laptops that are all too easily broken by kids when they take them home."
A strong opponent of Luna's reforms in the Legislature, retiring Rep. Brian Cronin, is a now a strategist for the campaign working to overturn the laws with a November referendum. Cronin defended use of the term "unfunded mandate" to describe the $60 million laptop program, saying it lacks a long-term, stable funding source.
"It's a big and expensive program. We've appropriated a tiny bit of money to pay for the first part of it, but we're going to continue to raid the current programs we have to pay for something we probably don't need and is not likely to raise student achievement," Cronin said.
The claim that there's no assured funding for the laptops in the future, leaving schools on the hook, is inaccurate because the reforms are now Idaho law and statutorily require funding, Luna spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said.
"The Legislature has to fund them or they have to change the law," McGrath said.
Also, lawmakers didn't dip into other parts of the public schools budget for the laptop money because it was new revenue, she said.
Luna's reforms did shift $14.7 million from salaries to pay for other changes, such as increasing the minimum teacher pay, restoring salary increases for teachers furthering their education and paying for high school students to earn college credit.
The shift from salaries was one of the most debated pieces of Luna's plan, and further deductions were eliminated with 2012 legislation, leaving lawmakers to find the money for the reforms. That initial $14.7 million withdrawal, however, wasn't backfilled and will continue.
For his part, Cronin takes issue with a new ad from the YES for Idaho Education campaign that makes the case for the reforms, saying: "While we've seen some improvement in the last few years, we hit a ceiling. We could either keep banging our heads against that ceiling, or we could pass the Students Come First legislation."
"The idea that we've somehow hit a ceiling and we can't do any better is rather absurd, given the very low level of investment that we make," Cronin said, referencing Idaho's status among states with the lowest spending per pupil. "There are things that we can do, but they generally require greater investment."