Education: New laws good and bad

by Judy Ferro

This year the Idaho legislature passed 65 education bills, including 20 for appropriations.

The one authorizing creation of a new school funding formula may turn out to be the most important. The current formula considers basic costs to operate a school as well as the incremental costs of additional students. A switch to per student funding would destroy many rural schools. The current formula, however, is complicated enough that one incoming State Superintendent of Schools had to ask the IEA to figure which district got what. .

Idaho Education News ranked nine additional new laws as important, including funding to wrap up the mess caused by issuing an illegal contract for broadband service nearly 10 years ago and the bill authorizing use of the Bible in classrooms, which was vetoed by Gov. Otter.

Most of the other bills passed with little controversy. Teachers, technical staff, and counsellors will get additional pay under year two of the career ladder. Classroom funding will reach the 2009 level. Additional funding will provide remedial services to the estimated 37,000 kindergarten through third grade students reading below grade level. And a $5 million increase in Opportunity Scholarships will aid students attending Idaho colleges.

One new state-level position was created for coordinating the STEM Action Center and five new ones for Security Division to inspect schools on a three-year cycle.

In contrast, an act releasing charter schools from traditional teacher contracts was hotly debated. Schools may now opt to hire teachers as short-term help and to fire them at will.

Could anything make it clearer that many charter schools are the product of corporations looking for big profits, not great teaching?

Somehow I can’t buy the idea that job insecurity will “attract the best and brightest to the classroom.” Years ago the Boston School District used the same tactic by hiring only temp teachers for schools serving Black communities. The results inspired Jonathan Kozol’s book “Death at an Early Age.” The title says it all.

Tenure—the practice of not firing teachers without cause—is designed to protect teachers so they can advocate for students. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.

My sister Joy was teaching in a rural Nevada district when it adopted an “innovative, new” reading curriculum.

Those who’ve taught school for a decade or so, know that “innovative, new” curricula come along frequently. Each is touted as guaranteeing learning in a way that archaic old methods–preferred by ignorant, tradition-loving teachers–could not.

“Get aboard or get out of the way” was the superintendent’s cry.

Unfortunately, this curriculum was bad. Within a year a new superintendent was asking, “How could you?” How could teachers not see that kids weren’t learning? Or, seeing, how could they continue with a program they knew didn’t work?

Didn’t the teachers realize that their first obligation was to their kids?

Well, it’s tricky. When a new program isn’t working, teachers may be unsure if problems are with them, their students, or the new direction. If they speak out, they are accused of being sticks-in-the-mud who don’t want to make the needed effort to change. In some schools, they risk trumped-up charges and firing.

It may take years—like with high-stakes testing—to pinpoint the problems but at some point teachers must—and do–speak out.

Innovation and change may be great rallying cries, but the teacher’s goal remains the same; figure out where the student is at and help him or her move forward.