Education overhaul is easily Idaho's top 2012 poll issue

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Public schools chief Tom Luna spent the final days of the campaign to preserve his "Students Come First" education overhaul promoting this message: Teachers unions are putting their interests above those of Idaho's children.

Meanwhile, foes of Luna's changes also stayed on the offensive as voters streamed into the polls, encouraging them to reject the changes on grounds they were forced on teachers.

On Tuesday, Luna and Mike Lanza, chairman of the "Vote No on Propositions 1,2 and 3, had just hours to wait before learning who would come out on top.

The campaign is among the most expensive in Idaho history, topping out at some $6 million combined.

Luna's changes, passed by the 2011 Idaho Legislature, limit union bargaining, promote teacher merit pay and lease laptops for high school students via a recently-inked eight-year, $180 million contract with Hewlett-Packard.

Luna, for whom the success or failure of his reforms may well be a high-stakes barometer of his political fortunes in Idaho, said it's clear that unions are fighting to preserve their entrenched power because they haven't brought forward alternative proposals of their own.

"They've haven't brought forth one new idea," he said in an interview leading up to Election Day. "It's not like you have a choice between "Reform Plan A" and "Reform Plan B. It's either reform - or go back to the system we had two years ago."

Lanza predicted Luna's measures will incur the wrath of voters who saw through the arguments that providing a laptop to every high school student was somehow an antidote to improving their performance in the classroom. Buying computers for students will simply sap already-underfunded public education, he said.

"Tom Luna and the governor and the Legislature can't make money appear from thin air," Lanza said. "If they're spending 100s of millions of dollars to pay for the mandates of these laws, that is money we're not spending to hire teachers or fill the other needs that our school districts have."

Some deep-pocketed heavyweights sought to influence the vote.

On the "Vote No" side, the National Education Association teachers union, along with its state affiliate, spent about $4 million combined.

Meanwhile, Frank VanderSloot, owner of Idaho Falls-based health products direct marketer Melaleuca Inc., single-handedly injected nearly $1.5 million in the days preceding the election into the pro-overhaul effort, in hopes that Luna's changes will survive.