Idaho voters rebuke Luna, Otter in dumping ed laws
BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho voters upended all three of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's laws to overhaul education, a blow not only to the state's public schools leader but also to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter who backed them.
Two-thirds of voters panned Luna's plan to spend $180 million to lease laptops for high school students and create online-class mandates. The other two laws - limits on teachers' collective bargaining rights and a new system of merit pay for teachers - also flamed out, on margins of more than 12 percentage points.
On a night when voters preserved Republicans' hold on the Idaho Legislature and delivered nearly a supermajority to Mitt Romney, they couldn't stomach education changes that many teachers argued were foisted on them from above. Penni Cyr, Idaho Education Association president, said voters bluntly rejected Luna's allies' contention that union efforts to overturn the laws were solely to preserve their power over public schools.
"This debate has never been about union control of our schools," Cyr told a small crowd of reporters Wednesday at Boise High School. "The debate has been about what's best for our students, educators and Idaho's public schools."
Luna's disputed education changes, passed by the 2011 Idaho Legislature as hundreds marched outside the Capitol, sought to limit union bargaining and peel back job protections for teachers, promote merit pay and lease laptops for high school students via a recently-inked eight-year, $180 million contract with Hewlett-Packard.
Cyr said her group could work with Luna on making some changes to education - if he acknowledges that he's "just one" of the people at the bargaining table.
"Now that the voters have spoken, it's up to us - the adults - to come together and model for our children, how grown-ups with very diverse opinions and ideas can put their differences aside to do what's right," she said.
The campaign will go down as one of the most expensive in Idaho.
Some deep-pocketed contributors sought to sway the vote, with the National Education Association teachers union, along with its state affiliate, spending about $4 million combined to defeat the measures.
Meanwhile, Frank VanderSloot, owner of Idaho Falls-based health products direct marketer Melaleuca Inc., injected some $1.5 million into the pro-overhaul effort, in hopes that the "Luna Laws," as their foes derisively described them, would survive.
David Adler, director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, said Luna comes away a wounded leader.
"This was a severe blow to Luna, who is an ambitious politician," Adler said. "So much of his legacy is tied to the overhaul of the public education system. This will be a difficult defeat to come back from."
Luna didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment on Wednesday morning but said in a statement he remains convinced Idaho residents want to see education reform to improve schools.
He didn't directly acknowledge his resounding defeat.
"We've have now had a 22-month discussion of what that should look like," Luna said. "I understand Idahoans have expressed concerns, yet I do not believe any Idahoan wants to go back to the status quo."
Otter, featured in TV campaign commercials touting the laws' merits, acknowledged the defeat in a statement, saying simply "this is how our system works."
Mike Lanza - a parent of two elementary school-age kids and the chairman of the "Vote No on Propositions 1, 2 and 3" campaign - said voters rejected not only the laws but also the process in which they were passed: In the cloistered halls of the Capitol, by partisan GOP lawmakers intent on punishing the union, largely without input from teachers and parents.
He suggested the timing is now right to bring all the groups, politicians and the Idaho Education Association included, together for a "real, honest process of education reform."
"I'm already hearing from many people who want to help us move forward," Lanza said. "We have the public engaged now, at a level that's perhaps unprecedented in Idaho."