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Idaho Voters Scrap ‘Luna Laws’

By Jason Tomassini — November 13, 2012 5 min read
Idaho schools chief Tom Luna talks with reporters before the polls closed Nov. 6. State voters scrapped a trio of controversial education laws that he shepherded through last year.
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In rejecting sweeping Idaho measures that would have limited teachers’ collective bargaining rights, paid educators based in part on student performance, and put laptops in the hands of every high school student, voters in that heavily conservative state dealt a major blow on Election Day to an education agenda advanced by prominent state Republicans.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected Propositions 1, 2, and 3, which would have upheld laws passed by the state legislature last year with the backing of Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, both Republicans. Teachers’ unions led a petition drive that put the measures on the Nov. 6 ballot for repeal by voters.

Unprecedented Spending

Unprecedented amounts of money for an Idaho ballot measure—more than $6 million combined—was spent on both sides of the heated campaign. Opponents characterized the measures as an affront to the teaching profession, while proponents touted a departure from the status quo.

In the end, 57 percent of voters rejected Proposition 1, a measure to phase out teacher tenure and tie 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to student academic performance. On Proposition 2, the establishment of a $38 million performance-based-pay system, 58 percent voted no. (It’s unclear how teacher bonuses earned during the past year will be distributed.)

And in a result that surprised those on both sides of the debate, 67 percent of voters rejected Proposition 3, a measure that aimed to ensure every high school student and teacher had access to a laptop computer and required students to take two online or blended learning courses before graduating.

As in Indiana, where the incumbent state superintendent, Tony Bennett, lost re-election in a heavily Republican state, and in South Dakota, which backed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney but rejected performance-based pay and a weakening of tenure, Idaho, too, proved education issues don’t always fall along party lines.

More Idahoans, 432,000, voted against Proposition 3 than voted for Mr. Romney, who won the state with 420,000 votes to President Barack Obama’s 212,000. Mr. Luna served on Mr. Romney’s education policy advisory committee.

“The biggest takeaway message is—especially in Idaho, which has never been supportive of unions or inclined to refute something backed by Republicans—voters will hold their elected leaders accountable,” said Mike Lanza, the campaign chairman for Vote No on Propositions 1, 2, 3, the main organization opposing the measures.

Opponents of the measures said the results served as a referendum on Mr. Luna’s policies, which they argued were forced on Idahoans and which they initially protested during the legislative session last year.

“When these laws were brought forward to the legislature, they were sprung on us,” said Penni Cyr, the president of the Idaho Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. The NEA donated more than $1 million to the campaign against the propositions.

Union Clout

On the losing side, proponents of the measures credited the state teachers’ union and its backers for a strong campaign. They also cited the challenge in pushing a complicated set of policy measures in an often emotionally charged area like education.

“It was probably so sweeping that it was a little confusing and a little frightening to the average electorate out there,” Ken Burgess, the campaign manager for Yes for Education, said of the package of laws.

The state legislation at issue—formally called Students Come First, but known to detractors as the “Luna laws"—gained extra prominence because of the venomous tone of the debate. In February 2011, Mr. Luna’s car was vandalized a day after a man claiming to be a teacher harassed him at his home, an act that became a rallying cry within conservative education circles.

Supporters of the measures also came out on the wrong end of some of the campaign’s most publicized controversies.

Education Voters of Idaho, a group that ran advertising in favor of the measures, was forced to disclose its donors after a lawsuit by Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. The group had argued its donors did not have to be publicly named because it is registered as a 501(c)4 organization, a “social welfare” group that does not have to disclose donors. Those donations included $200,000 from New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and $250,000 from Joe Scott, an heir to Albertsons, a Boise, Idaho-based grocery-store chain. (Opponents of the measures still outspent proponents $3.6 million to $2.8 million, however.)

In the days leading up to the election, Mr. Luna announced an eight-year, $180 million laptop contract with Hewlett-Packard. Mr. Lanza, the Vote No leader, suspected that Mr. Luna believed the contract would lend legitimacy to the online learning measure, but details like the state’s intent to lease the laptops and the $1,200-per-device price tag may have backfired. It is likely the contract will be voided.

“He thought it would be a boon to the campaign, and I think the more details that were revealed, the more voters saw it as a boondoggle,” Mr. Lanza said.

Triumph of Messaging?

Proponents said voters likely bought the opposition’s framing that laptops would replace teachers.

“It sounds like the laptops got caught up in broader issues that were up for referendum,” said John Bailey, the executive director of Digital Learning Now!, a national education technology advocacy campaign. He, like Mr. Luna, was an education adviser to Mr. Romney’s campaign.

“Whenever technology is positioned as replacing teachers, that’s always a losing premise,” Mr. Bailey said, “and it’s not the right way to view things.”

Mr. Luna declined comment but released a statement suggesting efforts could be renewed during the upcoming legislative session.

“I understand Idahoans have expressed concerns, yet I do not believe any Idahoan wants to go back to the status quo system we had two years ago,” the statement said. “I am as committed as anyone to finding a way to make this happen.”

Ms. Cyr said the state teachers’ union and other stakeholders are forming a task force to devise ways to improve student achievement.

“IEA is not interested in the status quo,” she said. “We are interested in what’s best for students and public schools.”

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Staff Writer Katie Ash contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as Idaho Vote Overturns ‘Luna Laws’

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