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Idaho school reforms carry big price tag next year

By Jessie L. Bonner
Associated Press / January 18, 2011

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BOISE, Idaho—A list of reforms to overhaul public education in Idaho would carry a $68 million price tag next year and be paid for mostly with bigger classroom sizes, state superintendent Tom Luna said Tuesday.

Luna briefed state lawmakers on his spending plan for Idaho public schools in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, and detailed a wish list of education reforms he wants to carry out over the next five years.

The plan calls for a slight increase in total spending next year on the public schools, which were cut by more than $128 million this year, and would restructure how Idaho's limited education dollars are spent.

Under the reforms, Idaho would boost technology in the classroom and provide high school students with laptops while expanding online learning. The plan also ties some teacher pay to merit, with bonuses for those who take on hard-to-fill positions and leadership roles, but requires educators to forgo coveted job security.

"This is a plan to educate more children at a higher level with limited resources," Luna said.

The overhaul would cost about $68.2 million during its first year, increasing to roughly $150 million during the final year the changes are implemented. A bulk of the costs would be paid for by increasing the ratio of students-per-class from 18.2 to 19.8 during the next two years to save about $100 million annually.

Idaho school districts that lose students would also no longer hold onto 99 percent of the state funding that came with that student for another year, saving another $5.4 million to help pay for the reforms.

The state is expected to eliminate an estimated 770 to 825 teaching jobs, roughly 300 classified personnel positions and about 60 administrative roles as classrooms expand and more courses are taught online.

At the prospect of job carnage, some lawmakers were skeptical of Luna's pitch that the economy demanded the types of changes he had brought before them.

"I have to wonder in my mind how 1,000 less people working helps the economy," said Sen. Dean Cameron, a Republican from Rupert who co-chairs the Idaho Legislature's budget writing panel.

An estimated 1,600 teachers leave Idaho's public education system each year for a variety of reasons including retirement or a new job, and Luna believes the job losses can be absorbed mostly through attrition.

Luna briefed 47 lawmakers -- nearly half the Idaho Legislature-- who sit on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the Senate Education Committee and House Education Committee on the proposed reforms and his budget for the next fiscal year, when the changes would start to kick in.

Public schools, which make up one of the biggest areas of the state budget, were cut by more than $128 million in total funding during the current fiscal year.

Luna's proposed budget calls for $1.59 billion in total spending -- state general and federal funds -- on public schools in the next fiscal year. The request is the same total the governor has recommended.

If lawmakers adopt that total while writing the state budget, only about $14.4 million of the total funding cut from public schools this year would be restored in the coming year. Luna needs further lawmaker approval to restructure how Idaho's scarce education dollars are spent and carry out the proposed reforms.

"You cannot cut the current system any further," Luna said. "If the legislature doesn't have the political will to change the system, then they need to have the political will to raise taxes or whatever is necessary to fund the current system because you cannot cut the current system any more."