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Idaho Schools Chief Warns Against Using School Resources for Politics

Idaho's state schools chief Tom Luna has warned teachers and other school employees not to engage in political activity on school grounds, amid efforts by his opponents to overturn controversial legislation he supported—and a push to recall him from office.

In a memo issued this week, Luna said that his department has heard concerns from parents and others about alleged instances of politicking during the school day on school property.

Luna, in a May 16 memo, says he has heard of school employees staging political actions that violate the state's code of ethics for educators. Those who break the rules can be reprimanded, or have their professional licenses suspended or revoked, he said.

Idaho's Republican-controlled legislature approved one of the most sweeping education policy overhauls in the country this year. The package included restrictions on collective bargaining for teachers, limits on teachers contracts, the phasing out of tenure, and the implementation of a pay-for-performance plan. Those measures drew heated opposition from critics around the state, including the Idaho Education Association, which is backing efforts to gather signatures to have the laws put on the ballot and overturned by popular vote. Opponents of the plan are also attempting to recall Luna, a Republican who was re-elected last fall and who was a strong backer of the laws.

Without identifying the exact topic of the alleged political activity in schools, Luna said in his memo that his department has heard complaints about school district e-mail systems being used to coordinate political activities, and school resources being used to create and print political materials. He said there have also been reports of "political proselytizing" to students, including "urging 18-year old students to vote a particular way in an election." Additionally, he cited reports of students being used to ferry political materials, and of schools being used to "further political agendas in conjunction with any school activity or event, including after-school events."

The Idaho teachers' union blasted the memo, accusing Luna in a statement of trying to pressure educators into backing down in their opposition to the laws.

The union instructed its members not to collect referenda signatures on school time and not to use students to promote the effort, while defending their right to "free speech and assembly in the public right of way during non-school hours."

The teachers' organization also issued its own guidance with its views on the propriety of gathering signatures on school grounds. It says that school employees can collect signatures during off-duty non-instructional time in areas of school district property set aside for faculty use, such as break rooms and lounges, and at after-school events where the district has given access to other groups not affiliated with the school.

"Luna is trying to shut down a process in which he has a clear political interest," said Sherri Wood, the president of the union. "This is a blatant attempt to intimidate educators and the majority of the public who oppose the new education laws and want to vote on them," Wood said.

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