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Lots of money at stake in education reform - and too few answers

Times-News Editorial Board
February 28, 2011
Twin Falls Times-News

Sometime today or Tuesday, the Idaho Senate Education Committee will sit down and start deconstructing the centerpiece of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's sweeping education reform plan.

It's got its work cut out.

Senate Bill 1113, which was approved by the same committee earlier this month, calls for increasing class sizes in grades 4-12 and cutting 770 teaching jobs in the next two years. It would redirect millions of dollars into technology upgrades, a laptop computer for every high school student, online courses and teacher performance pay.

The legislation was pulled back last week amid concerns in the Senate about raising school class sizes. The other two pieces of Luna's Students Come First initiative - SB1108, reducing Idaho teachers' contract rights, and SB1110, setting up the performance-pay plan - both passed the Senate on Thursday.

Serious questions remain about the provisions of SB1113, and the technology aspect is especially vexing. We wonder how many IT positions have been cut in school districts across Idaho over the past two years and whether the legislation will provide money to bring back enough specialists to make all that expensive new classroom hardware and software work consistently.

And there are potential ethical issues.

Luna's plan would funnel millions of taxpayer dollars to private-sector providers of online courses. As the Idaho Statesman and The Associated Press reported earlier this month, the superintendent has long known and worked with individuals who stand to benefit financially from his reform proposal.

Some of them have contributed to Luna's political campaigns.

Consider K12 Inc., a Virginia-based online company with 81,000 students and operator of the Idaho Virtual Academy. In Idaho, IVA enrolls 2,930 students and received $12.8 million from the state in fiscal 2010. K12, its employees and major stockholders spent about $44,000 supporting Luna; $25,000 of that was funneled to an Idaho interest group for independent advertising on Luna's behalf.

K12, whose co-founder and major stakeholder is former junk-bond king Michael Milken, also has financial ties to the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which ran full-page newspaper ads statewide in support of the Luna plan.

Former state Sen. Laird Noh, a Kimberly Republican who retired in 2004 after 24 years in the Legislature, told the Statesman he fears privatization will twist policy to the detriment of students.

"It reminds me very much of President Eisenhower's warning to beware of the military-industrial complex," said Noh, who clashed with K12 Inc. while in the Senate. "It seems to me that what we're seeing here is the educational-industrial complex that's operating behind the scenes, with people like Rupert Murdoch. They are interested in the millions of dollars, frequently taxpayer dollars, which they can glean through the political process."

Under Luna's proposal, school districts could designate the required online courses that students must take, but not the providers of those classes. Yet the districts - and by that we mean the taxpayers - would still have to pay for them.

There's a lot of your money on the table here. And it's not clear how it would be spent, and with whom.

We agree with Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, that these issues should have been discussed before Luna sprang his sprawling reform package on the Legislature on Jan. 12.

So now the Senate Education Committee must act in haste. Let's hope Idaho's taxpayers don't spend the years ahead repenting in leisure.

Originally posted at

The editorial posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.

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