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Idaho Ballot Another Litmus Test for Teachers' Unions?

With everyone discussing what the Wisconsin recall election results "mean" for teachers' unions across the country, it's worth taking the temperature of a state where the teachers' union may not have the same clout as in some states, but is still fighting a significant electoral battle.

As my predecessor on this blog, Sean Cavanagh, has previously discussed, the Idaho Education Association (representing 11,000 education workers, most of them teachers) successfully gathered enough signatures to place three new laws from 2011 on the November ballot for voters to either uphold or strike down. The laws were part of a major education legislation package passed by legislators and supported strongly by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, as well as Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, a Republican.

The first ballot referendum, Proposition 1, deals with the 2011 law restricting collective bargaining for teachers just to salaries and benefits, phasing out tenure, and removing from the bargaining table issues like bell schedules and classroom time for teachers.

The second, Proposition 2, is about the new "pay-for-performance" law for teachers that creates bonuses based in part on student achievement and performance on state tests.

Finally, Proposition 3 challenges the mandate placing more technology in classrooms, including the requirement that students take online courses in order to graduate, and that each high school student have access to a laptop, a requirement being phased in over the next three school years. (Last year, Luna himself escaped being subject to a recall election in November.)

The latest news on this referendum fight is that last week supporters of the new laws officially formed a coalition called Yes! for Idaho Education that will campaign for voters to uphold the laws.

A quick piece of background: In 2006, by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent, Idaho voters defeated a ballot proposition that would have increased the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent, with all the increased revenue earmarked solely for education.

But Ken Burgess, a Boise lobbyist who is the campaign manager for Yes! for Idaho Education and who has also managed Luna's campaigns, said that explaining the three laws to voters will be a little "fuzzier" than explaining a straightforward taxation question and will require hard work by the laws' supporters. Hence the formation of the group.

Drawing parallels between unions' efforts in Wisconsin and Idaho is tricky, Burgess argued, because unlike in Wisconsin and elsewhere, public-employee unions are both less numerous and less influential. However, he said that the National Education Association and other unions may decide that Idaho represents an opportunity to rebound from their disappointment over the failed recall vote on Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The NEA invested $75,000 in Idaho last year to fund efforts to gather enough signatures for the three ballot referenda. One possibility is that having already invested that kind of money to get as far as putting the laws on the ballot, NEA will decide it might as well invest significantly more cash to take down at least one of the laws. Such a win could represent a relatively surprising (and therefore headline-grabbing) victory in Idaho and provide a confidence boost for its members.

"Are those national unions deflated and demoralized after Wisconsin? ... Or are they now realizing that after Wisconsin they need to get some sort of a win somewhere, and will they put some focus on Idaho? I don't know the answer to that yet," Burgess said.

As for the laws themselves, Burgess argued that the increased use of technology mandated by the law is already paying dividends in the form of innovative lessons using iPods and iPads that were implemented in the 2011-12 school year, and that teachers will eventually appreciate the chance to earn extra money under the merit-pay system. He also said school boards are expressing appreciation for how fast and smoothly contract negotiations have gone with the new collective bargaining law on the books. The proposals underlying the laws, Burgess noted, are not new.

Penni Cyr, president of the IEA, who is campaigning for the three laws to be repealed, stressed that the issues animating Wisconsin teachers' unions aren't necessarily applicable in Idaho. She said that compared to the battle Idaho teachers are fighting, the Wisconsin argument over collective bargaining seemed narrow.

She said the 2011 law that is the focus of Proposition 1 eliminates the voice teachers previously had in students' classroom experience and education and have complicated contract negotiations. The law being targeted by Proposition 2, meanwhile, merely repeats the mistake of the No Child Left Behind Act by stressing tests and test scores too much and quality education not enough, Cyr argued. And as for the new laptops, she said there is no "new money" from the state to pay for them (although Burgess said the state is picking up the tab for the laptops).

The problem in Idaho isn't trying to educate voters about the 2011 laws, Cyr said. Instead, she said the IEA's goal is to mobilize public support that already exists for the laws' repeal.

"We were not invited to the table. Parents were not invited to the table to discuss what's best for kids," Cyr said. "They basically surprised everybody in the 2011 legislative session when they brought these three laws forward."

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