Idaho Legislature: JFAC Faces Budget Challenge

by Judy Ferro

As the legislature completes its eighth week, most committees are barred from considering new bills, and the spotlight turns to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) whose members must put together a balanced budget.

It’s no small task, especially since, according to the non-profit Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, the executive budget presented by Gov. Otter has a deficit of $24.7 million.

Reportedly, the Governor’s budget didn’t include payment for $27.7 million for fire fighting on Idaho state lands in FY2014.  (That amount is 2 ½ times normal and seems to have put a damper on seeking control of Idaho’s Federal lands.)

And there is the small matter of a possible lawsuit by Syringa, the company written out of the broadband contract.  It is claiming that change, now declared illegal, resulted in $22 million in lost income.

So much for Siddoway’s call for using the $18 million budgeted for tax cuts to increase teacher salaries.

But there’s more.  According to Betsy Russell of the Spokesman-Review, Idaho has about 50 more classrooms of kids than were budgeted for this year.  The Governor probably recognized this in estimating that FY2016 support should be up by 87 classrooms.  The latest projections, however, suggest Idaho schools will grow by about 167 classrooms.  Add another $7 million to the budget. (It would be more if Idaho’s basic support weren’t so low.)

Add to that a high number of high school juniors and seniors applying for stipends to pay for on-line classes granting college credit.

If Senator Jim Rice’s bill to end the sales tax on road-building materials passes, it will mean another $15-$20 million cut in general funds.

The legislature also hopes to appropriate more funds to keep wages for state workers from falling more than 20% below the market rate.  Last year the legislature passed a 1% increase for one year only.  That means this year’s proposed 3% increase is really only 2%–and wages in the private sector are expected to increase by 3.7% this year.

And a quirk of the calendar means FY16 will have 27 paydays for state workers rather than the usual 26.

Now the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy has suggested one way to balance this year’s budget without a tax increase: extend Medicaid to those who make up to 139% of the poverty level.

The Center estimates it will save the state nearly $34 million to make the Federal program pay for the insurance for our working poor.  Many worry about any move that increases the national deficit; still, we’re taxing ourselves considerably while other states are getting the advantages of this program.

Another budget-cutting move receiving attention would be to increase the number of lawyers in the Attorney General’s office.  The state government has been spending about $10 million a year hiring outside legal council at a rate two-to-five times as much as staff lawyers.

It will take more that JFAC’s magic, however, to find the money needed for roads and bridges.  That’s why the House Transportation Committee approved a bill last week that would increase the gas tax by 8 cents a gallon, the diesel tax by 12 cents, registration fees for cars by 50%, and those for trucks by 25%.

That would hit the middle class, but not as hard as the plan to increase the sales tax to 7% AND increase the income tax rate for everyone making less than $89,000 a year.   (Rates for the very poor would go up 400%).

It’s no wonder JFAC members are esteemed; balancing each year’s budget takes a special kind of magic.


Education: The Good and Bad of Teacher Evaluations

by Lilburn Wesche

         Outstanding teachers choose to teach where they know they are wanted     

         Will a tiered salary scale attract outstanding teacher education graduates to Idaho? And if it does, will they stay?   

         Upgrading beginning salaries is badly needed but, if schools are to improve, the emphasis must be on retaining effective teachers. We need to be competitive with other states and occupations at the experience levels. The problem has been the dollars, not the single salary schedule.    

        The downside of the tiered salary proposal is that, to keep their jobs or advance, teachers must meet a complex set of performance standards, and therein lies a major deterrent to attracting teachers. No one has yet come up   with a teacher evaluation system that is not fraught with subjectivity — subject to bias and prejudice.   

         The difficulty with any measurement of ‘quality’ in the classroom is the challenge to account for all the variables among students and classes and from year to year — variables which are infinite and defy valid or reliable assessment.  What is the evaluator’s perception of a “culture for learning?” Is it a deadly “quiet” classroom, a “noisy” classroom, a “busy” classroom? What is the attitude toward creativity? Does the evaluator favor a punitive or a supportive approach to behavior issues? Is the emphasis on learning or testing? How are these and other behaviors defined and implemented?   

        Unfortunately, decisions for measuring teacher effectiveness are too often determined by policy makers who have no real knowledge of what it takes for successful learning. Cost and even profit have become the driving force in decisions about schools. When legislators and board members ignore research and professional advice, are blinded by prejudice, dedicated to their own agendas and give only lip service to “progress” or “improvement,” the end result is what one would expect — nothing!   

         Education is not a business! It is a service. What education policy makers, mostly from the world of profit-motivated business, fail to recognize is:    

1. Teachers want to be respected   and, while fiscal compensation is a factor in respect,

2. For dedicated, professional teachers, salary is just one of several determinants in selecting a teaching position.   

3. The current salary schedule has worked well; the problem has been the salary, not the schedule.    

4. Confident, competent teachers support constructive evaluation, recognize the need for continued professional development and appreciate emotional support, but   

5. Professional teachers, like any professional, will resent evaluation driven by whim and caprice and used only to determine if one should be fired or retained.   

6. Student learning won’t improve by expecting teachers   to teach in isolation, by building schools designed for containment rather than learning, by structuring the school day and student placement in lock-step format   

7. To upgrade teacher quality it is counterproductive to offer licensure to almost anyone who thinks they can teach despite lack of knowledge or skills or who have had only a casual study of teaching and learning.   

8. To recruit the best qualified teachers, licensure should be granted only to those who have satisfactorily completed the requirements of nationally accredited teacher education institutions.  

 Lilburn Wesche is an NNU professor emeritus and past president of the Seattle University and SW Idaho PDK Chapters.    


Transportation: Ready for Toll Roads?

by Judy Ferro

Recently Senator Siddoway helped me realize that not all Republican legislators who’ve supported measures designed to destroy the public schools want to destroy the public schools.

Now I’m hoping that Idaho also has Republican legislators who don’t realize that measures they support are designed to end public ownership of roads and bridges.

Sound impossible?  Check out this headline from, “CPP Investment Board to Buy 10% of 407 Toll Road for About $878 Million.”

That’s right.  Corporations with $2 trillion sitting in banks are seeking profitable investments.  Maybe people can’t afford to buy new things, but they’ll pay for necessities like roads.

Republicans claim that we can’t take care of roads and bridges today because we can’t pay for them.  Never mind that in the 1950s—definitely not boom years—we embarked on an Interstate highway system that was the envy of the world.  Republicans then supported building roads because such long-term investments would help both businesses and people.  For Democrats, there was the added bonus of good-paying jobs.

Today’s Republican leadership, however, is more interested in making the rich even richer.

Since 2008, the transportation policy of ALEC—the American Legislative Exchange Commission—has called for a “market-driven highway system” and “private investment in highway projects.”  “Tolling,” charging to use roads, is the subject of five of its seven principles.

Do I need to remind you that several Idaho legislators are ALEC members?

Loyola University economics professor Walter Block published a major book urging privatizing roads in 2009.  Ted Stossel, Peter Samuel, David Klein, and Linda and Morris Tannehill have echoed his call.

Most cite “reducing congestion” as the number one argument for privatizing.  Road crowded?  Just charge more.  Make those who can’t afford a $5 toll each day to crowd into side streets so the paying customers can cruise without delays.

Economics professor, Bruce L. Benson, suggests privatizing even those side roads and giving the owners the power to police the environs so they can guarantee the safety of their customers.  Just how high would tolls have to be to provide a private police force?

Powerful people who crusade against “one more cent” in taxes aren’t worried about your pocketbook.  They have no qualms about you having to pay whatever the market will bear to corporations like Toll Road Investors or CPP Investments.

And toll supporters don’t have to convince the public to support privatization.  They just have to prevent us from maintaining our decaying roads and bridges long enough that fear of death or injury builds.  A collapsing bridge killing a dozen or more and embroiling the State in lawsuits would be a boon for them.

And once we let our roads and bridges go, the chances of buying them back are nil.

How do we retain our public infrastructure?

To start off, we should follow Siddoway’s lead and give maintaining our roads and bridges a higher priority than new tax cuts.  Idaho already collects the least taxes per person of any state.

Then we should spread the cost over a number of measures.  Legislators are considering increasing user fees for long-haul trucks, vehicle registration fees, and the gas tax.  (It’s doubtful Congressional Republicans can increase the Federal gas tax; the Koch brothers and other oil billionaires are against it.)

There is also talk of increasing the sales tax another cent.  Or we could add a new income tax bracket, perhaps charging an extra 0.5% for those making over $140,000 a year.

None of these options is appealing.

But paying tolls to visit the kids in Moscow could be a lot worse.

Politics: Legislative Battles Underway

by Judy Ferro

Our legislators, toiling away in Boise for over a month now, have introduced more than one bill each—90 in the House and 45 in the Senate.

Four new license plates are under consideration.  (We have 50 already.)

The new abortion bill merely requires a doctor’s examination before and after RU-486 is administered.  It aims to curtail on-line sales and relies on civil suits for enforcement.

The new gun-rights bill would extend legislators’ rights to carry concealed weapons without a permit to every “law-abiding” Idaho citizen.

And “Add the Words” got its first public hearing, one which allowed 186 voters to speak.  Although the bill was defeated in committee, there is now recorded testimony on discrimination in Idaho.  Legislators can no longer say we don’t need a law because no one has complained.

And, perhaps, others were as touched as Rep. Linden Bateman.  “I’ve gotten to know you,” he said, “and I know from this point on — forever — I will be kinder and I will be more compassionate to those who bear a heavy burden.”

The big battles loom ahead now, and many, if not most, concern education.  Five Idaho colleges want $3.7 million to cover the cost of implementing the new guns on campus law.  Junior colleges have asked for more than the 1.5% requested by the Governor, who proposed a 4.4% increase for the universities.

And Superintendent Ybarra and Governor Otter are squaring off over whether the new plan tying teacher pay to student test scores gets a pilot program in six schools or is rolled out throughout the state.  Educators who remember new math and wall-less classrooms believe in pilot programs.

The fight I am glad to see, though, is Senator Jeff Siddoway’s declaration that he will not allow any tax cut bills out of the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee until teacher starting pay is increased 25% to $40,000 a year.

I was speechless when I saw this, because I thought all the Republican leadership was aiming to destroy public schools.  I mean, they cut teacher’s salaries, increase their work loads, insult their abilities, question their motives, ignore their input, and then are disappointed when teachers leave the state or the profession?

I’m now considering that Siddoway may have actually believed statements by the American Legislative Exchange Commission, which designed many of the changes Idaho Republicans have fought for.  Its mission statement for education includes phrases like “promote excellence,” “parental choice,” “efficiency” and “opportunity to succeed.”

Dozens of other entities have looked at the ALEC proposals, however, and concluded that the organization’s real mission is to siphon public education money to private K-12 corporations and drive down wages. Get rid of the professional and bring in the minions. That’s been the direction in Idaho.

Looking at the Koch brothers other school interventions in states like North Carolina and Kansas, however, suggests they also want to prevent the middle class and the poor from socializing and developing inter-class ties.  A permanent sub-class makes the middle class more scared and obedient.

But now Siddoway, undeniably a strong Idaho Republican, is alarmed by teacher shortages in his district and sees that public schools are in danger?  He really wants to see public education serve the counties he represents?

I am both flabbergasted and hopeful.  Could there be others in the Republican leadership more interested in serving Idaho than in impressing ALEC and the Kochs?

Will Siddoway succeed in improving morale–and bank accounts–for our teacher corps?  Or will the Republican leadership instead decide that the Transportation Committee can now handle tax cuts?

Education: Tracking System Failure

by Levi Cavener

       Recently, Roger Quarles, executive director of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation and former chief deputy on Tom Luna’s staff, announced that the Albertson Foundation would change course in its philanthropic giving, moving away from public schools and focusing new dollars on community-based projects.   

       The reason for the alleged shift seems to be due to an underlying frustration that teachers and schools just weren’t adopting Albertson-fueled “innovation” quick enough. In a recent Boise State Public Radio interview, Quarles voiced his frustration regarding the lack of Idaho schools to adopt Albertson initiatives, “You have to look at that and go ‘fundamentally there’s some problems within that system.’”   

       Let me be clear: Albertson has done some terrific work in supplying schools and students with funds to pilot classroom technology, curriculum and emerging instructional methods. However, let me also point out that Albertson and Quarles have been equally complicit in building those exact same “fundamental   problems.”

       For example, take Idaho’s longitudinal cradle-to-cadaver data tracking system: Idaho System of Educational Excellence and its companion, Schoolnet.   

       ISEE/Schoolnet was developed to uniformly track student and teacher data across the state. Unfortunately, millions of dollars and years later — and funded by both Idaho and the Albertson Foundation — ISEE/ Schoolnet, like Victor Frankenstein’s monster, is still lying on the table waiting to be shocked into life.

       ISEE/Schoolnet has been such a colossal failure that in 2014 Idaho paid school districts to fund whatever system they preferred.    Schoolnet was so dysfunctional that Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, inquired at a 2013 legislative committee meeting, “Is [Schoolnet] working anywhere, for any purpose, to improve education?”

       The answer? No. In addition, when the data finally made it into teachers’ hands, it often wasn’t accurate.     

        Said one U.S. Dept. of Education federal grant reviewer of Idaho’s original ISEE/ Schoolnet plan, “Idaho could benefit from examining the successful models of several states and hiring a professional grant writer and some technical experts….” While such feedback should have initially tapped the brakes on the project, Idaho and the Albertson Foundation pushed the gas to the floor, with Albertson promising a $21 million grant.   

       Which is where Mr. Quarles fits in. When the Legislature caught whiff of the project’s total ineptitude, Superintendent Luna dispatched then-Chief Deputy Quarles to clean up the mess. It didn’t go well. Despite some “software CPR,” districts across the state jumped ship and started again using a hodgepodge of independent data systems.   

       It gets better: Since then, Quarles left his post as chief deputy to become executive director of the Albertson Foundation. One of his first acts as executive director was to break the foundation’s promise to Idaho’s schools and students by withholding the final ISEE/ Schoolnet funds. To be fair, it was the correct decision; the writing was on the wall about ISEE/Schoolnet. Even Pearson, the company hired to build ISEE/Schoolnet, skipped town.     

       But this dysfunctional outcome is precisely the type of “fundamental problem” that Quarles places on Idaho’s public school system. Perhaps it’s better that ISEE/Schoolnet remains in the lab on life support. Like Victor Frankenstein’s monster, some things just aren’t meant to be shocked into life.   

       Albertson’s decision to back out is telling; it highlights precisely the dysfunction caused when radical, ideologically driven interest groups dabble in education policy. Albertson’s continued commitment to funding more special interest groups, like Teach For America, merely compounds the so called “fundamental problems” here in Idaho.

       Sorry, but Idaho’s “fundamental problem” has nobody to blame more than the Albertson Foundation itself.    

Levi B Cavener, a special education teacher in Caldwell, manages the blog  An unabridged version of this piece, including hyperlinks to primary sources, is available there.